Saturday, June 05, 2010

Spam, spam, spam, Spam!

Maybe it's because I don't post much to this blog (mostly I'm over at but I've been having real problems with Asian spam, so I've turned on moderation here for all message comments.  It's not like the action is so fast-paced here it will put a cramp on things, and maybe it will at least keep the damned spammers under control.

But if you leave a comment, be aware, it may not show up for a while until I've had a chance to review and clear it.


Friday, June 04, 2010

SpaceX Excels Through Patient Steps to Space

Today's successful first launch of SpaceX's Falcon9 medium booster and prototype Dragon capsule is a vindication of their patient, determined, building-block approach to space flight, one that resembles the original NASA method far more than what NASA has done since the cancellation of the Apollo program.

The Falcon 1 was a test program for everything that followed, an "X-Plane" if you will, but it was also designed as a functional commercial launch vehicle that could take small payloads to orbit. It had its share of failures before it succeeded, but it was designed to. The scale was small enough that failures were economically survivable, which probably wouldn't have been possible with a larger vehicle. It was also complete enough that if money had run out for further development, they still had a launcher to sell. Brilliant.

Upscale the structure of Falcon 1, put nine Merlin motors in the first stage instead of 1, one Merlin with a bigger nozzle in the second, multiply many of its systems, and you have the medium lift Falcon 9 that flew today. The approach of clustering to create a larger booster resembles the very successful Saturn Ib booster used on many Apollo orbital flights, manned and unmanned (including taking astronauts to Skylab, and the Apollo Soyuz mission). The Saturn I clustered and stretched tanks and engines used on previous launch vehicles (the Saturn Ib had eight first-stage engines).

But while the Saturn Ib was a mass of mismatched parts, the Falcon 9 is built more like a Lego toy, from a smaller number of common elements. The first and second stages use different versions of the same engine. The first and second stage use different versions of the same structure, and therefore overlapping tooling to build them, roughly half the work to verify the structural methods and performance.  The Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 share many common parts and systems.

Like the original NASA approach, Space X is designing launch vehicles independently of their mission. Falcon 9 can be used for satellite launches, to loft cargo in its Dragon capsule, and eventually astronauts (or paying passengers) as well. But it isn't limited to those things, or overspecialized in ways that cripple it for other missions (see the Shuttle as a worst-case in this department).

Today's launch isn't the end of the road. It's a mid-point in their master plan. The next Dragon capsule to fly will be fully functional on orbit, able to maneuver under its own power and do everything except dock with the space station. Docking is the next step. At some point, they also need to demonstrate reentry capability, and (if the capsule is to be used for manned launch) an escape rocket system.

But even that isn't the end. Incremental upgrades to Falcon 9 are certainly possible, and Space X eventually plans the Falcon 9 Heavy, a heavy-launch vehicle that straps two Falcon 9 first stages as boosters to the sides of a central Falcon 9.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that the building-block approach may have its limits. The Saturn Ib was a huge success, but the Russian N-1 Moon rocket (challenger to the mighty Saturn V) was a colossal failure. It may not be fair to make comparisons though. SpaceX shouldn't suffer the political snafus and pressures that hamstrung the N-1 program, and the engineering problems are far better understood (as are the tools for predicting and solving them).

Today, Space X has announced that they're in early talks with NASA on the development of a future "super-heavy-lift" vehicle. Would this be a Falcon 9 heavy with four strap-ons, build on some further upscaling of the core vehicle, or would it be the start of a new cycle of development built around larger motors and structures? It will be exciting to find out.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hey, Retailers!: Ace is the Place with the Annoying Hardware Man

Am I the only one who gets annoyed and stressed at over-helpful shop clerks? Because to "serve me better," these guys are making me freaking crazy... Today I actually snapped at a clerk at the local Ace Hardware store. I felt bad about it. They were trying to help, and simply, I'm sure, acting on the training and dictates of management, but they were still part of a vast conspiracy to drive me insane. After becoming the third person to ask if I needed help in about 45 seconds of walking across the store, I simply lashed out. Sorry 'bout that...

I live in a small town where, if you want hardware, the main choices are one of the two locations of the local Ace Hardware, or driving 50 miles or more to get to a Lowes or Home Depot. (There's actually another small chain store in town, but their in-stock selections are limited, and they cater more to contractors and builders than do-it-yourselvers like me.)

That's actually not a complaint. I actually really LIKE our local Ace franchise. They have most of what I need, the people generally know their stuff, and while the prices don't always match the big-box stores, they generally aren't bad. What I DON'T like is being stalked by sales clerks from the moment I walk in the door. It's a stupid policy, bad customer service (though in an an unusual form) and bad business.

At this point you may be asking yourself, "Steve, if you find the employees to be knowledgeable and helpful, why is this a problem? How can it possibly be bad customer service? How can it be a bad way to do business?"

Okay, here are a few points for those of you in the retail world.

1. There's a fine line between friendly and cloying. I love that there are friendly people at my hardware store. Local people, who smile and greet me, and sometimes know me by name. That's great. But I don't need them in my hip pocket every moment I'm in the store.

Greet me at the door. This makes me feel good, and makes me welcome in your store. This is also a the BEST time to see if I want help. Even if I don't you can then assure me that your employees are there to help at any time if I need it. Ask me once. I really don't need to be asked by EVERY employee in the store.

After that, be aware that I'm there, and look to see if I seem in serious need of help, or especially if I'm trying to FIND someone to help But don't loom. Give me some space and the quiet to figure out what I'm looking for and what my needs are, or (SHOCK!) just to SHOP. Plus, as annoying as your people can be, Murphy's law still applies. When I REALLY have a question or need help finding something, that's inevitably when nobody is around. They're all busy pestering other customers...

2. Don't make me unwelcome in your store through excessive attention. Come on, you know what I mean here. I worked in retail once upon a time, and the customer that ALWAYS got tons of help was the one you were suspicious of. The troublesome-looking kid off the street. The person who had had a little too much chemical self-alteration and seemed to have just stumbled into the store. The nervous potential shoplifter with the giant backpack.

When employees start attaching themselves to me like lampreys, it sends a subtle message, "take care of your business so we can get you out of here." The more welcome I feel in your store, the more I'm going to be happy and in the mood to buy. The more time I spend in your store, the more likely I am to think of something else I need, discover something I didn't KNOW I need, or make an impulse purchase. Don't hold me up, but for goodness sake, don't rush me out the door either...

3. I am, like millions, possibly billions, of other Americans, an introvert. I am not, by nature or personalty, a people person. It doesn't mean I don't LIKE people, but it does mean I like my alone time and the company of my own thoughts. It also means that social contact, especially with strangers, creates stress and discomfort.

This is a minor thing, but very time one of your "helpful" employees tracks me down and insists on an exchange I don't want, the stress multiplies. Times are, I literally emerge from the hardware store, my jaw clenched from stress, feeling like I've been through the wringer.

Many of your customers simply DON'T go to the hardware store for the chit-chat and the social interaction. Some, sure, but not all...

Worse, the more persistent and inquisitive you train your employees to be, the worse this situation is.

Train your people to take "no" for an answer. Better, train them to take a HINT of a "no" for an answer. If the customer has clearly heard you and still isn't making eye-contact, isn't talking back, isn't engaging the clerk, then that's a good time to say, "I'll be over that way if you need anything," and move along.

4. Despite what you may think, no matter how well you train your people, no matter how good they are, YOU CAN"T HELP EVERYONE.

Oh, sure, you can help most people. Most people have common, household, problems. They need to put up a mailbox, fix a leaky faucet, or replace an electrical outlet. Your employees can take those people to exactly the thing they need and show them what to buy and how to use it. Good on you.

But there are other kinds of customers that aren't so easy to pigeon-hole, and who are really more inclined to help themselves.

First of all, it's a new world these days. The building/remodeling boom is over for the moment, and there's a growing movement of people who make, repair, and build things on their own. These people could be building a windmill, or a rain-barrel, or converting an old shopping cart into a go-cart. You just can't know. All you can know is that there is no "Shopping cart upgrade" section in your store. They may need some lawnmower parts from your garden section, some screws from hardware, a piece of metal conduit from electrical, a muffler-clamp from automotive, and some plastic pipe from plumbing.

Likewise, there are other people shopping in hardware stores for the most unlikely stuff for the most unlikely reasons. They could be crafters, artists, hobbyists, kite-builders, boat-builders, redecorators, toy-builders, amateur-theater set-builders, and a million other things. I build 1/6th scale sets and props to use in my "Minions at Work" photo web-cartoons. We don't care what things are intended to be used for. We're in your store to buy conventional materials for unconventional purposes.

These customers care about what things look like, are shaped like, how they move or fit together, not what their common application is. These folks are into form, not intended function. Your employees are rightfully trained to deal in function, not form, to best help the majority of customers. But for this potentially signification (and possibly growing) minority, they'll just slow them down and get in the way. I can't tell you how frustrating it is to have a persistent clerk insist on my explaining my needs. Only when I do, at length, they simply stare at you slack-jawed, unable to comprehend, or worse, they're scornful or dismissive. "You're building WHAT!?"

I move along only to be intercepted by another sales-person 60 seconds later. Thank you for your support.

5. I don't always KNOW what I'm looking for.

No, you can't always help with that either. Sure, if it's a common job like fixing a lamp or patching a garden hose. But for a moment, refer back to point 4. If I"m one of these "off the map" customers, I may have a good idea of what I WANT to do and what I HOPE to find, but it's really an open problem to be solved in the confines of your store. I need to wander through a bunch of departments and figure out what I need.

For example, maybe I need to make two linear supports and connect them at right angles. Maybe the supports can be wood, or plastic, or metal. Maybe they'll be plastic pipe, or angle-iron, or wooden-dowel, or 2x2 lumber, or electrical conduit, or threaded rod. Maybe they can connect with some kind of bracket, or a bolt, or screw, or a connector junction, or a nail, or a clamp, or glue, or even tape.

Probably there are a dozen or more solutions to this problem in your store, so I'm going to look for the one that is the best and cheapest. Your employees probably can't help here. Back off, and let me figure it out for myself. Yes, I'm wandering aimlessly looking like I can't find what I want. IT'S BECAUSE I HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I WANT! DON'T ASK! I'LL KNOW IT WHEN I SEE IT!

And look, this applies even to customers with more conventional needs. Often I'll walk into your store with the vague idea that I need something. I know I'd run into one of those common household problems the other day. "I should fix that," I said to myself. I remember that much, but not the details. Was it something to do with electrical? Plumbing? A sticky window? If I wander for a bit, maybe I'll spot it, or at least something that reminds me of what I needed to fix.

Even if I do know the primary thing I'm after, I'm a home-owner, and at any given moment, there are a HUNDRED things that need fixing. Just give me some time, I'll think of the ones bugging me most and make some more purchases. Stop derailing my train of thought every time I get close.

Worse, don't frustrate me to the point that I leave your store before I've figured it out. I'm GOOD at procrastination. I don't need any help.

6. Shopping is not a crime.

I know, this is crazy talk. Easy in, easy out is your motto.

But if infomercials have taught us anything, its that we can't buy what we don't know exists. I know for a fact they your buyers spend lots of time looking for nifty and clever new products to stock your shelves with. Trouble is, I don't KNOW what you have in your store unless I see it. And I'm going to let you in on a secret: often neither do your employees.

I've got a specific example: I was in my local Ace Hardware one day on a totally unrelated mission when I wandered past a rack of light bulbs. There, I was excited to spot a couple pegs of LED light bulbs. Now, I knew LED light bulbs existed, and I was excited about the prospect of the technology. After all, they last a very long time, and make even the most efficient compact florescent look like a power hog. But last I knew, they were still expensive specialty items, costing $50 and up a bulb.

But here they were, in a local store, and priced at under $10 a bulb! And according to the packaging, I could well save over $100 on power over the life of the bulb. So I grabbed a couple to try out. A clerk stopped me to ask if I'd tried them, and how they worked. So did the person at the register.

So, it turns out the LED bulbs work well in the application I have for them (lighting my large office/studio) and I go back frequently over the following weeks to buy more, replacing old bulbs as they burn out. Over and over, the folks at the checkout are amazed. The clerks ask questions (which I really mind FAR less then the unwanted "can I help you find something" queries). I bought another one today, and the person at the register commented on how strange it looked, clearly never having encountered one before.

I've spent about $100 on these bulbs so far, money I'd NEVER have spent if I'd waited for an employee to direct me to the product. Heck, I'd never have thought to ask the question, even though I knew that the product existed (though not at that price). I found the product by SHOPPING. Let people browse your store freely, and they'll gladly spend money they never would have otherwise.

And fact is, some of us, even men, like to shop. The old hunter-gatherer instincts are still strong. We like tracking down the rare and elusive prey. That works strongly to the retailer's advantage, if they'll just let it.

That's my rant. I'm not going to stop shopping at my local Ace Hardware (not that I have a lot of choice). But I know I'd spend MORE there if they'd just back off and let me shop.

"Can I help you?" I think I just did...

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Clearing the Cobwebs

Before we get to our next topic, a little housekeeping business. I'm afraid I've been neglecting this, one of my suite of blogs devoted to my rather diverse fields of interest.

One reason is that I've been much more focused on our "core" blog, lately for publicity reasons. Chris has a new series of mystery novels coming out starting this fall, and we're trying to build traffic and awareness there. I've also made "YorkWriters" available for subscription through Amazon's Kindle store, and if I'm even allowing, much less asking people to pay even a modest amount for something, then I feel some obligation to deliver regular and substantial content. I haven't listed this blog on Amazon, not because I'm unhappy with the quality of content here. Quite the contrary. But in terms of quality and regularity, no, it's just not there.

But the result has sometimes been that things I might formerly have posted here, simply in the interest of evenly spreading interesting content around the various blogs, has instead ended up on YorkWriters by default. Sorry about that.

That doesn't mean I've given up on this blog, or that there aren't some things that are going to end up here that you'd never see on YorkWriters. Here's my general mission-statement about how things will break down.

Things that will end up on YorkWriters: Most posts about writing and publishing. Posts of general interest, opinions, current events, and major career announcements.

Things that will end up here at the Multiplex: Things from me that are of a more personal nature. My ramblings and rants about technology, science, space, and the future. Things that reflect the more nerdy aspects of my persona: posts about pop culture, movies, toys, comics, etc. Most anything that's just a little too off-mainstream or quirky to fit on YorkWriters.

I hope not to go so long between posts here in the future, but no promises. One aspect of what I write about here is that the posts are often much more personal, passionate, and technically complex than what I post elsewhere. A lot of though, hard-work, and research goes into many of these posts, and I approach them as though I were writing an op-ed piece or magazine article.

Okay, I won't claim that the polish of them always gets to that level, but I don't just dash them off in fifteen minutes and post them. A lot of sweat goes into some of these posts, and I don't usually even start one unless I think I have a topic, and an approach to that topic, that's worthy of that effort. You won't catch me blogging just to make noise and fill dead-air. I don't roll that way.

Anyway, I've got some ideas rolling around my head about what is necessary for a society to create complex technological projects (like airliners, or Moon rockets), and our ability to maintain the culture that makes such things possible. I'm worried that we're losing our abilities in those areas, and the costs to our society may be more significant and far-reaching than we imagine.

I'm on the road in Los Angeles, and have the starting-gun on a new novel project looming that could start at any moment (or be several months late, as it is right now), so I'm not sure when I'll get that through the pipeline. Hopefully in the next few days to a week.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Building a Moon Rocket From Common Household Materials, Part 2

If you haven't seen it already, you can see part one of the article here.

Well, yesterday, just as I was starting to relax a bit, that I had 24 fewer hours to finish my Saturn V model than I planned. So it's been a sprint to get it done in time, but (except for some drying glue) it's done, or as done as it's going to be.

The first couple pictures show the nearly complete rocket. The lower stages are done, though there are still rubber bands holding things on while the glue dries. The interstage (the lower taper) between the second and third stage is missing its final roll-markings, and actually that whole part of the rocket is just dry fitted together, and awaiting final gluing and assembly.

From start to finish this has been a question of compromise, but due to time constraints, I didn't detail it as much as I'd hoped to. It's got none of the external tunnels or rocket housings I'd hoped to add. The service module has only one of its twelve thruster nozzles, I never got around to adding nozzles to the escape rocket, and the engine nozzles were never painted silver (the protective covers for the engine nozzles were nearly an identical shade of red to the cups I used, so this isn't a huge issue).

But also along the way, mistakes were made. The biggest one is that through some error of measuring or calculation, the first stage/second stage joint is way too low. The first stage should be longer than the second. Actually, that could be the problem. I may have measured from the wrong end when I put in the lower second stage wrap. During assembly I kept turning the tube upside down and back again for various parts of the assembly, and that got confusing.

There are other smaller things. One of the flags is a little crooked. There are small gaps and imperfections I wish weren't there. A couple of tank wraps I'd planned to add got skipped for time (and one of the because the first stage was too short, because of my mistake, for it to look right.

Several things about the interstage between the second and third stages are less perfect than I'd like them to be, including a staggered joint in the roll pattern that should be straight.

I kick myself about these things, and yet I know that probably nobody at this party is going to know enough to notice, and there's just not doubt, looking at this thing, despite its flaws, that it's a Saturn V. It has the look, even if the details are wrong.

It also has size going for it. One problem with most Saturn V models, no matter how detailed and accurate they are. They just don't communicate any of the sheer size of the rocket.

The Saturn V was 362 feet tall. That's well over twice the height of the 10 story hotel the party is being held in. Refer to what I call the "shock and awe" low-angle shot of the incomplete model above. The fact that even I (being six-foot six inches tall) still have to look up to see the top of the model (if it's sitting on the floor) makes a huge difference. Put it on a table or pedestal, and it really reminds you that this is a a model of something big.

The details for tomorrow's display are still being worked out, but due to limited ceiling height in the party room, it will likely end up sitting on the floor tomorrow. I really wish there was room for even a short pedestal. Oh, well.

These last two pictures show the final model.

I'm really nervous now that something will happen to the model tomorrow. Parts of it (especially the fins) are fragile, and could be damaged if someone knocks the thing over, kicks it, or moves it without knowing what they're doing. I'm really hoping to get the model back intact after the party.

As I said before, we might be able to donate or loan it to a local school for educational purposes. Failing that, it will probably end up hanging (sideways) from my office ceiling. In fact, since school is out (and due to budget crunch, I don't know how much summer school they're having this year), even if it does go to school, it may have to be stored hanging from my ceiling until fall.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Building a Moon Rocket From Household Materials

This is a little off the usual topics around here, but... (Actually, given that I've done a lot of posting about space issues, maybe not so much.)

The beach hotel where my wife, Chris works her day-job is celebrating it's 40th anniversary this month. Given that this closely coincides with the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, the moon landing is one of the major themes for the party. Somehow I got talked into (or did I talk myself into it?) building a model Saturn V moon rocket as a central decoration.

Somehow I got the great idea: We can get one of those cardboard concrete form tubes (used to pour piers and the like) at Lowes and build it around that! It'll be easy and cheap.

Yes, this is being done on a budget of close to nothing. So far I've spent about $30 for materials. No, I'm not being paid for my time. I'm nuts.

Fortunately, there were lots of free resources on the web to draw on, especially for the capsule and escape tower. There are free paper models on the web that you can print out, cut out, and (with only a hobby knife, some glue, and the skills of a brain surgeon) turn into a nice 1/48th scale (just the size I needed) model of an Apollo space vehicle.

Actually, there are rather sketchy models of the whole thing in 1/48th, and better ones in smaller scales. I've ended up using bits of at least four different paper models. But only bits. Mainly the capsule "skin" and the shrouds that connect the stages and cover the four outer engine bells at the bottom. Everything else has been engineered from scratch, scrounging and adapting as I went along.

I needed this thing to be stronger and more durable than a paper model could be, so the entire upper stack, from the upper interstage to the end of the escape tower is supported by a "spine" of wooden dowel. You could put your eye out with the escape tower, but it isn't going to break off.

The interior structure is full of foam-core-board rings and plates, and this material is also used for the fins. All of the black markings are hand-cut bits of black posterboard or craft-board individually glued in place. The engine bells are carefully (we went through three stores measuring to find the right ones) selected plastic cups bolted to a foam-board base-plate. Because the cardboard base tube isn't EXACTLY to scale, and my hand-rolled third-stage tube also wasn't precise, the lower shroud had to be enlarged and modified.

There are well over a hundred (maybe two hundred) parts at this point, and most of them have been designed from scratch, hand-cut, and fitted.

This isn't a museum model though, and it has to be done on a deadline, so like a Hollywood prop, it's a rolling compromise to time and materials. I couldn't find a corrugated material like I wanted to use on the tank wraps, so I had to compromise and use bands of flat poster board.

I may not get around to adding the service module thruster nozzles (twelve tiny cones that would be cut from round toothpicks.)

I may not add many of the service tunnels, ullage (once again, my vocabulary exceeds my spelling checker, a small rocket-motor used to push liquid fuel to the back of the tank of an in-flight vehicle before main-motor ignition and stage seperation motors, and other "bumps" that cover the real Saturn V.

Still, it's nearly 8 feet tall, and even incomplete, the iconic look is there. Get some more paint and a few roll markings on it, and any baby-boomer will know exactly what it is.

I don't know what will happen to it after the party this weekend. Presuming it survives the proceedings (uncertain, but I hope), I hope to get it back. Maybe it can be donated to a local school, or failing that, it could end up hanging from my office ceiling.

In any case, I am very much a child of the space age. Building this is my homage, my totem (in more ways than one) to the anniversary and one of humankind's greatest achievements.

See part two of the article and the finished rocket, here.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Ebooks in space

The other day NASA took a mock up of the new Constellation manned capsule to the Washington mall to show it off, and I studied the press images with interest. I'd seen a rather less detailed mock-up recently at the NASA visitor's center at the Kennedy Space Center, but this gave a much better sense of what the real item will be like, and the fact that it was sitting on a flat-bed truck provided an unusually good reference for scale.

I was at once stuck by how large it is, and how small. Certainly, it's big compared to the Apollo capsule that the reentry body is based on, and big enough to provide a "wide load" for the semi-truck. But it's still very small when you think of some of the tasks put before it.

Constellation will replace the shuttle in taking astronauts to orbit, and hopefully will eventually get us back to the Moon. But long-term plans are also to use it for for extended missions to Mars, or possibly to near-Earth asteroids. Such missions would require astronauts to live in the capsule for many weeks or months. Even Constellation lunar missions may have much more extended stays than the longest Apollo mission. For a Mars mission in particular, the Constellation looks tiny.

It's one thing to be crammed into a tight space with several other people for a week or two. Human beings can endure almost anything for that length of time. But when this stretches to months or even years the psychological stresses can be intense. Boredom, isolation, lack of privacy, all are concerns on long duration flights, even in much roomier environments like the International Space Station.

Several years back I had the pleasure of watching the IMAX film, "Mission to Mir." One of the great things about IMAX is the level of visual detail, and the sense of presence that it gives you. You're free to ignore the action at the center of the screen and study the dusty corners of whatever environment is being filmed.

This was of special interest here, as Mir was quite an old space station at that point, and it was anything but a sterile environment. It was literally a house, or maybe more properly, a dorm, in space, and it showed. Objects showed obvious signs of wear and use. Everywhere you saw signs of human occupation: notes, pictures, personal objects, signs.

Given the eventual sad decline and death of Mir, this could be taken as signs of decay, but my reaction to it was joyful. People weren't just visiting space, they were living there! It was an important distinction from the space missions of my youth. Even the Skylab space station missions seemed mostly to have been carried out with a sense of military pragmatism.

One scene I found of special interest featured a visiting astronaut showing off their tiny personal quarters. In particular my eyes were drawn to a small shelf full of well-worn, well-loved paperback books (held in place with some kind of strap or bar, in case you were wondering). The 'naut explained how every new visitor added to the library, and left the books behind for future occupants of the station.

Since every pound of mass sent to orbit is literally worth its weight in gold, these are probably some of the most expensive books I've ever laid eyes on, and they were likely among the most appreciated.

Which brings me back to the Constellation. The astronauts who go on those long missions will almost definitely have one advantage no previous space-traveler has had before: a space-rated version of the Kindle or some similar ebook device loaded with an entire library of books.

Yes, they'll have other entertainment technological advantages as well. They'll certainly have an iPod, or something like it, loaded with music and movies. There will be personal computers, possibly game consoles, and maybe even simple virtual reality to help them escape their little technological world from time-to-time.

But I think books have a unique power to engage the mind and take the reader away from whatever their reality may be to a different mental place. I think books will be a great source of comfort in the long void between the worlds. It makes the ordeal of spending months on end jammed into that little tin can seem just a little more thinkable.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Shuttle Disaster that wasn't -- Barely

I follow space flight fairly close, but here's a chilling bit of history I wasn't familiar with. 21 years ago, just after the return to flight after the Challenger explosion, the Space Shuttle Atlantis came dangerously close to being destroyed by the same sort of tile damage that later destroyed Columbia.
Except that, in many respects, the tile damage to Atlantis, also caused by an insulation impact during launch, was actually worse than the Columbia accident. More than 700 tiles were damaged, and one tile in a critical area was completely destroyed, resulting in melting in the exposed aluminum underneath.

And because of a communications blackout on the top-secret military flight, NASA remained blissfully ignorant of the damage, even while mission commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson was looking at images of the tile damage and thinking, in his own words, "we are all going to die."

I just read the story on the web site Space Flight Now. Here's the gist of it, with some added insights of my own (based in part on the rather mundane picture from the NASA archives seen above):

In 1988, the second post-Challenger mission, STS-27, was launched with a secret spy satellite on board. 85 seconds after launch, a chunk of insulation broke loose from the nose of the right solid-rocket booster and struck along the right side of Atlantis.

It isn't clear from the story if the discovery of tile damage was accidental, but it appears so, and the astronauts were extremely alarmed by what they saw. The insulation had impacted near the nose, and resulted in a triangular-shaped cone of damage all the way down the right side of the spacecraft, from the nose almost to the rear of the wing. You've read Gibson's immediate reaction above.

But because of limitations on communications, the crew were unable to properly communicate their concerns to the ground. During military missions, strict limits are places on communications with mission control to insure secrecy. Anything that might even remotely reveal information about the payload, its characteristics, purpose, or orbit, are closely guarded. One hard-fast rule in this case was, no video.

Finally, reluctant permission was given to send encrypted video of the damage to the ground. But the encrypted video system was black and white, low resolution, and could only send one frame every three seconds or so.

It's also interesting that the only photo I could find in the searchable NASA photo archives referencing the damage is the one above. It shows the crew attempting to repair a video tape containing the video of the tile damage. Yes, that is a roll of duct tape floating there.

The implication I take from this is that video was recorded (using the shuttle's robot arm) of the damage was recorded on tape in order to be converted into encrypted format and sent back to Earth. Only the tape jammed somehow, and... This is a SNAFU of historic proportions. You can read a million things into the bemused expression on the mission specialist's face at right. I like to think he's something like, "we're f*cking about to die, and it all comes down to duct-tape and a Betamax."

Because of the poor quality video, engineers on the ground thought they were just looking at shadows on the surface of the tile and assured the crew there was no danger. The astronauts knew otherwise, but did not attempt to convince the ground, perhaps unaware of their line of reasoning. It was nothing a little open discussion couldn't have fixed, but apparently the communications restrictions didn't allow for that, or at least, encourage it.

And so, the mission continued as planned, with NASA doing nothing (not that there was a lot that could be done, since no repair tools or materials, besides that duct tape, were carried, nor had even been developed at this point), and the astronauts soldiered on, plauged by doubts that they would survive reentry.

Upon landing, they discovered the damage was even worse than the astronauts had realized. Without the new cameras and extension boom now routinely carried on the Shuttle, there was no way to image the entire underside of the shuttle, including large areas of damaged. In told, more than 700 tiles were damaged, including the missing tile, located under the orbiter's nose, an area subject to high heating. Upon landing, it was discovered that the exposed aluminum under the tile had actually begun to melt.

If it had burned through, a literal torch of plasma would have cut into the shuttle and its fragile systems underneath, quite likely dooming the spacecraft. Perhaps, as with Columbia, one of the first warnings would have been the pressure in the landing gear tires, as heat caused them to expand, and finally explode. Except, the indicator might have been on the front tires, rather than the rear.

It didn't happen though. One bit of luck, the missing tile exposed a mounting plate for an antenna, and so was thicker than the skin only inches away. That one detail may have saved Atlantis and its crew.

Post flight, NASA apparently minimized the damage and the risk to the crew. Secrecy may have been an issue, but it's almost impossible to ignore the potential CYA factor. A near disaster only two flights after Challenger, following what was supposed to be a complete safety overhaul of the program, could have grounded the shuttle again and heads were certain to roll. It's interesting that, even now, there are apparently no photos of the tile damage in the searchable on-line archives, though they exist (Space Flight Now has a few).

Of course, if Atlantis had been lost, the shuttle would have definately been grounded, and it very well could have been the end of the shuttle program, and perhaps American manned space flight. That's one grim alternate universe.

But in another one, NASA learned from the mission and launched an immediate review of the potential for tile damage. Methods might have been developed for routine examination of the tiles during each flight. Improvements might have been made to reduce foam shedding and ice build-up. Repair tools and techniques might have been developed. And in that world, Columbia might have survived, or at least its crew might have been rescued by an emergency launch of a second shuttle.

But that didn't happen.

are their grim alternate reality.

The shuttle is scheduled to be retired next year, and I will miss the capabilities we lose when that happens. But I will not miss the shuttle itself, with its inherent design flaws and dangers. There's no reason that the Constellation system that replaces it shouldn't be far safer for the women and men who fly in it.

Let's hope that's so. Space is a dangerous business, and more people will die in its conquest. But those deaths shouldn't be tragically avoidable, as was the case with Challenger, Columbia, and almost, Atlantis.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Alabama Shooting Hits Close to Home

You know how sometimes you'll turn on the radio or the TV with the news already in progress, and you get this bit out of context that really doesn't register till later, if at all?

It started like that for me. I turned on the car and the radio came on, and I was focused on backing out of a parking space. I'm not listening, but a few words call out to my unconscious. I hear "shooting," "gunman," "Alabama," and that bit before "Alabama." Was it "south-east?"

Surely not.

Though I live on the Oregon coast now, I was born in south-east Alabama, and spent most of my childhood there. Though we moved a lot later on, my folks always had a house there, my mother's family lived there, and it was always "home" no-matter where we lived. It's poor country, sparsely populated, and generally speaking, not much happens there. When something from from there makes the national news, I pay attention.

But in this case, I was quickly out of the car and distracted by something else. It wasn't until that evening that I checked into Google News and saw the headlines, and dug into the reports with increasing alarm. This was all familiar territory. All the pictures showed familiar places. This was hitting close to home. Very close indeed.

I knew intimately almost every inch of the gunman's rampage, and had history with it all, and it had ended shocking close to the house I grew up in.

After fretting for a few minutes about the late hour, I called my Brother who still lives a half-mile or so from my parent's house in Chancellor, Alabama. My parents are snowbirding in Gulf Shores, but I couldn't be sure where he'd been that day. His first words on answering the phone weren't "hello," or "who is this?" They were, "I'm alive."

Yes. That was the answer I was looking for. Death had come to southeast Alabama, trod through my memories with an assault rifle in-hand, and come perilously close to people I love.

It had been worse for Tim. He'd been 3o or so miles away, in Dothan, Alabama, when he heard about the incident on the radio, but his girlfriend had been home. The news reports said only that the gunman had been cornered "on highway 27 between Geneva and Enterprise," which is exactly how you'd describe Chancellor if anyone asked.

I make that phone call sound grim. Actually we laughed and joked through most of it. Gallows humor. Whistling in the dark. A defense mechanism. We're good at it.

We didn't talk long. It was late on a work night. But it didn't stop me from thinking about it.

The part of the shooting spree I'm least familiar with is where it started, in a tiny town called Kinston. Yet Kinston lies along probably the first road I ever traveled. Kinston is on the road between Opp and Samson. I was born in a hospital in Opp, and that road is the one my parents would naturally have taken driving me home.

Michael McLendon started his rampage there by killing his mother and her dogs and setting her house on fire. Talk about someone feeling walking on your grave? This is the exact opposite. It's like death walking on your birthplace.

He then proceeded to the tiny town of Samson, one I know very well. I never spent a lot of time in Samson. There was no reason to.

The downtown is just a few blocks long. But it was a place you went through on the way to somewhere else. We usually passed through on our way to the beaches in Florida, so I associate it mostly with happy time. We stopped there to eat a couple times, or for gas. But unless you have business or family in Samson, there isn't much there, there.

My dad got us in a fender bender there once when I was a kid (just to be clear, it was the other guy turned right from the left lane, and it was definately his fault), and that's probably the most time I've spent in the town, sitting there while waiting for the police, trading insurance information, filling out accident reports.

It was almost certainly the most exciting thing that happened in Samson all day. And it might have been the most exciting day that week. That was the kind of town it was.

McLendon killed seven people in Samson.


In a town of less than two-thousand people. Five of them on one block of Pullum Street.

I can't get over that.

I looked Pullum Street up on Google Earth. Near as I can tell, it's only a few blocks long. My Uncle Wayne had an apartment very close to there until he passed away a couple years ago, maybe no more than a block or two away. Though I don't know Samson that well, I could drive you there without a map.

From Samson, he drove the road to Geneva, another one I know well. If you were coming home from Florida and needed to pick up some groceries or stop for a bite to eat, you'd probably detour over to Geneva rather than taking the direct route through Coffee Springs (a few miles from Samson, where I attended school until the sixth grade).

Just outside of Geneva, there's a grain silo. It's visible in many of the news photos. It's been a landmark as far back as I can remember. It was once the tallest thing for miles in relatively flat country. There are some new water towers and radio masts, but it's still one of the tallest things in the area. Seeing the grain silo in the distance, as you were driving highway 27 from Chancellor, was the first sign that you were approaching Geneva. Though the silo was on a different road, it could be seen from miles away.

The police set up a road block in front of the silo, on the Samson-Geneva road, and tried to stop the gunman. They failed, though they succeeded it slowing him down. Two policemen were injured, and according to some reports he shot at people in the Wal-Mart and Piggly Wiggly grocery-store parking lots nearby, both places I've shopped while visiting my family.

Geneva I know very, very well. It was the closest town of any size to our home, and we frequently went there to shop or eat. Our family doctor's office was just a few blocks from where the roadblock took place. Next door was the drug store where I first discovered comic books. Even closer is the hospital where they set my first broken bone. The place is loaded with memories, good and bad.

McLendon proceeded through Geneva, then turned left onto highway 27. Highway 27 leads directly from Geneva to Chancellor.


Chancellor is on highway 27. The tiny town is only a block wide. A short block, one house deep. My brother's house is on the highway. My parent's house is a block off it.

Fortunately he didn't make it that far. That was the first moment of recognition when I logged on and started reading news reports. Not where it started. Where it ended. The Reliable Metals plant.

It wasn't called that when I lived there, but I remember when the building was put up. It was a big deal, a modern steel industrial building going up in a declining town that had seen better days. I recall that, for some strange reason, there was a golf course built around the building, greens and sand-traps where there are fenced parking lots today. The golf course didn't last long, and the building changed hands, but I still recognized it immediately in the news photos.

It's well out of Geneva on the road to Chancellor, just past the little Geneva airport where my dad got his pilot's licence, where we spent many a happy afternoon watching airplanes when I was young, where my parent's friend Lynda and Jerry once lived in a mobile home behind the tie-down area, and had a German shepard dog.

McLendon was maybe ten minutes at most from my brother's front door when he decided to turn off and make his final play. Seven miles according to Tim. And not any random seven miles. Not any random ten minutes. He was on the right road, going in the right direction. There aren't even any other major roads to turn off on. There was almost literally no other place for him to go.

But thankfully for me, death took a detour, then left the building. Leaving bodies and grief and confusion, and for me, so far away, a disturbance in the Force.

It's a sleepy place that lives mostly in memories for me now, and in the occasional phone call or visit to my parents and brother. How did a gunman get in there? How did mass murder intrude on my past, invade my lazy days of childhood?

Like most people, I study the news reports and try to make some sense of it all. I scan the names of the dead and wonded, and give some thanks that none of them are familiar. Strangers are dead. Good. That's just human nature.

But the odds still eat at me. There are less than 27000 people in Geneva country. Less than 2000 in Samson. Less than 4500 in Geneva. It's almost surprising that I didn't know someone.

And among the dead, some of the surnames are familiar, the same as classmates I went to Coffee Springs School with. It's very likely that I know someone related to those killed. It's that kind of place. Nobody is that far seperated from anyone else, even when one of them is completely across the country.

I almost wish I was there. If I could drive that road and see those places, maybe I could make more sense of it all. But I can't, and I'm left to sort it out from postage-stamp news photos and a lifetime of memories.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Sprinkles, Frosting, and a Twist: Taking Fictional Tropes Beyond the Next Level

A few months ago, my wife Chris was taking a badly needed break between writing books on a tight deadline. All she wanted was to veg out in front of the TV for a while. Unfortunately, it was somewhere in the Holiday/new-year wasteland of TV. All of the shows we follow were either off the air or in repeats.

As it happened, I had just then stumbled on a deal at a liquidator store on an anniversary release of James Bond DVDs. I brought a couple home, and Chris spotted them. Before we knew what we were doing, it was back to the store for more Bond DVDs. All the Bond DVDs in fact (except for the two most recent "reboot" films, which we already had).

We ended up spending the entire holiday break on a Bond marathon, watching not only the films, but many of the bonus documentaries, which this release generously provided. I don't consider it wasted time at all. Quite the contrary, it was quite educational.

The classic Bond films aren't just films, they're grand entertainments, joyously excessive in every way. They're clearly born of the pulp magazine tradition of storytelling: fast moving, exotic, suspenseful, action packed, engines for over-stimulation. But of course, the pulps only described the things that James Bond movies brought to life.

I don't think the younger generations can appreciate a world-changing experience it was for audiences seeing "Goldfinger" or "Thunderball" for the first time. It did what "The Great Train Robbery" or "King Kong" did for the generations before, or what "Star Wars" or "The Matrix" did for later generations.

But of course, Chris I don't make films, or even write screenplays these days, so what's to be learned here for prose writers? Well, one thing we learned was the power of taking fictional tropes to the next level, to not just have things happen in your stories, but to have them happen with pizazz and style. In any kind of fiction, not just adventure, it could be the difference between bland story that just sits there, and exciting fiction that engages the reader and won't let go.

Here's how Chris and I came to call this, "Frosting, Sprinkles, and a Twist."

We were watching a typical Bond action sequence, I don't remember which one. I remarked to Chris, glancing at the plate of holiday sugar cookies looking for a metaphor, "You know the thing about Bond. It isn't just about viewer cookies ("cookies" in this instance, referring to those story elements placed to offer special pleasure to the audience). They all have frosting."

At which point the scene immediately topped itself. I did a double-take, and struggling to adjust, said, "Okay, frosting and sprinkles."

At which point, the scene again managed to top itself, taking to outrageous to an unbelievable level. Chris looked at me and grinned, "Frosting, sprinkles, and a twist!"

The pattern was revealed, and once we recognized it, we saw it again and again. Like I said, I don't remember that first scene where we spotted the pattern, but I do remember one that came immediately after, a chase scene in "Live and Let Die" which repeated the pattern twice in quick order.

In the scene, Bond and the inevitable lovely companion are being chased by bad guys. That's the cookie, and it's the sort of thing that could (and usually does) happen in any adventure or suspense story. It could be pretty exciting, except for the fact, we've seen it a million times before.

But this being a Bond film, we don't leave it there. They're on foot, so Bond steals a handy motor vehicle to make an escape. Frosting? Maybe, but weak, thin frosting. We've seen it all before.

Which is why Bond steals a bus. That's frosting.

But wait, there's more. Not just a bus. A double-decker bus. Now that's sprinkles!

The bad guys also make motorized pursuit, some on motorcycles, which some might consider a twist. A bus chased by guys on motorcycles with guns. Pretty exciting.

But not enough for a Bond film. Chased by the motorcycles, Bond cranks the bus steering wheel and puts the top heavy thing through a 360 degree spin, driving the motorcycles off the road. Not only a great twist, but a literal one!

But the scene isn't over, and there's time to run through the cycle again.

Though Bond has gotten rid of the motorcycles, there's still a car back there, and the way is blocked by a low bridge! That's a pretty darned good cookie, and many a writer would be willing to stop there. But this is a Bond film.

Bond keeps driving! The bus hits the bridge, and the entire top deck of the bus sheers off and falls to the ground, blocking the car's path, allowing Bond to escape. Excellent frosting! One could well be satisfied with such a cookie and such frosting.

But this is a Bond film, dammit! The pursuing car crashes into the upper deck of the bus, gets stuck under it, and the car and severed roof drive away blindly! Action sprinkles with humor added!

But that isn't quite enough. As I said, it's driving blind, so the car (still under the bus roof) veers off the road and crashes into a lake. A light but refreshing twist to finish off the scene.

Frosting, sprinkles, and a twist. It's a classic "rule of threes." There are several examples of this sort of thing in storytelling. For example, there's the classic structure for a short-story:

Character in a setting with a problem. Character tries to solve problem. Fails. Things get worse.

Character tries again to solve problem. Fails. Things get worse.

Character tries one last time to solve problem. Succeeds (or fails ultimately).

It's also used in humor, from fiction to stand up.

Set up the joke. Reinforce the setup. Break the setup with the punch line. (Bad example. Man tells doctor, "Doc, my father thinks he's a chicken." "Oh, that's terrible. But don't worry, I've dealt with cases like this before, so I'm sure we can cure him." "Oh, I can't have you doing that, doc! We need the eggs!")

But Bond movies apply their rule of threes to everything! Bond can't just go someplace to find the villain. It has to be exotic, colorful, and dangerous. He can't just have a weapon. It has to be unsual, exciting, and disguised as some common object. He can't just drive a car. It has to be a fast, sexy car, loaded with weapons and gadgets. He can't just meet a woman. She has to be stunningly beautiful, have a suggestive name, and hide a dangerous secret.

In one of documentaries, the son of original Bond producer Harry Saltzman quotes him as saying, - "(I'm) thinking about another way to die. Death is really quick. A bullet to the brain, you're dead. But what I've got to do is think of something glamorous. You've got to die Hollywood style. It's got to look beautiful, it's got to look graphic, and it's got to give the audience a sense of revenge."

Exactly. Why use a gun when a poison blow gun would work? Why have the hero duck the dart when he can use his murderous dance partner for a human shield?

Of course, you could say, "What a stupid bad-guy. A gun would be better, and with a steel jacketed round, that human-shield trick wouldn't work at all."

But that's the real secret of "Frosting, sprinkles, and a twist." The viewer (or reader) can figure this out just as easily as you. But if you've entertained them, surprised them, stimulated them, titillated them, they don't care! In fact, they'll move right past it and want more. In fact, if you're good (as in the chase scene described above) you've got another helping lined up before they even have time to want more.

Of course, you may be saying to yourself, "this doesn't apply to me. I don't write James Bond, or action, or thrillers. I write romance (for example)!

No, it still applies. Sure, the tropes you use may not be as broad, but there's still no reason you can't take them up a level. Or two. Or three.

Maybe in your romance, the scene where your ugly-duckling, small-town heroine meets the potential mother-in-law just lays there. But what if the mom is brilliant and beautiful? And is soon revealed to be a jet pilot. And, oh-yeah, a retired astronaut. It all piles on to grind all your heroine's worst insecurities into the dirt.

Maybe the break-up scene at the corner coffee-shop is strictly by the numbers. What if instead you put your characters on a roller-coaster at Coney Island? And one of them says "I think we should see other people" just as the train tops the first hill and takes the plunge. But the roller coaster malfunctions, and they end up stuck together, in uncomfortable silence, with hundreds of people looking on from the station platform only 30 feet away.

Romance, mystery, science-fiction, it doesn't matter. If the story needs something, just take the elements that are already there, the settings, the characters, the situations, and take them up a notch -- two -- three.

Just remember, when in doubt, ask yourself, "what would James Bond do?"

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Star Trek: "It Ain't Canon"

As usual, the fan whining began many months ago (maybe years at this point) about the upcoming J.J. Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise. As it happens, I've seen two things in the past couple days the reenforce the idea that this reboot is not only going to be good (maybe even great), it's also going to be true to the roots of Star Trek. Roots that even many die-hard fans have (often conveniently) forgotten.

First thing, is the latest trailer. Check it out if you haven't seen it. I'll wait...

I feel like I've a little street cred to talk about Trek. I've been a big fan since I watched the first airing of "Man Trap" live on NBC back in (mumble-mumble), and I've since worked on three Star Trek prose projects for Pocket Books with my wife Chris (two "Star Trek SCE" ebooks, one since reprinted in paperback, and a "Next Generation" ebook, all of which are, I believe, still available for download, ebook fans).

A lot of what you hear is griping about it not being "canon," that is, the established history of Star Trek. There really has been a fantastic amount of effort over the years to document all things (on-screen things, that is, the books were never considered "canon") Trek and bind them into some sort of whole.

But behind-the-scenes efforts at this really didn't take root until well in "Next Generation's" run, and they were never entirely consistent. Despite what you may have been told, Trek has repeatedly contradicted itself in dozens of important ways, through it's entire run, in all of the series, and pretty much all of the movies.

Don't believe me? If you've got half an hour or so, check out the following series of fan-produced videos on Youtube highlighting a good number of these contradictions. Actually, if you don't have 30 minutes, the first few minutes of the first video should be plenty to convince you.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

The fact is, Star Trek "canon" has never held up to close scrutiny, and this is especially true of the original series, where such continuity was never a large concern, and "facts" were established with no thought of how it might fit into a larger continuity or time-line.

Yet that hasn't stopped the endless sniping, based on the few stills and trailer clips that have been released.

In fact, these are probably the same people who were bitching all the way through the three year series run of "Enterprise." Let me tell you, Enterprise had a lot of problems, but continuity is among the smallest of these. Really, is the "first contact" date for the Ferengi really that important in the greater scheme of things? (Don't get me wrong. I love the Ferengi, but you can pretty much ignore anything about them that happened until Deep Space Nine came along.)

But let's not get side-tracked (and there's so much Trek, it's easy for that to happen). Let's address the cries that, based on what we've seen so far, the new Trek movie "isn't Trek," and "isn't canon."


First of all (mild possible spoiler here) it's clear that the plot of this movie deals with some kind of time travel plot from the future mucking up young Kirk's life. What little we know about his early life (that which doesn't already contradict itself) from the original show and movies just doesn't necessarily apply.

Get over it. The details aren't important. What matters to me is, are we going to end up with the Kirk, the uber-captain, that we all know and love? (And watch the moment in the trailer when he apparently first takes the Big Chair, and tell me it isn't so?)

Another common complaint. Spock shows emotions. Spock fights. That's not Spock!

Sorry, kids. You weren't paying attention. That's very much Spock.

First of all, as Leonard Nimoy (in a performance whose depth and subtlty is constantly overlooked, even by fans) and the writers developed him, Spock is not some kind of meat-robot without emotions. He's the son of a violent warrior race that has learned to supress and control the expression of emotions, born of a mother whose species revels in them.

It's where pretty much everyone else who played a Vulcan in the other series (other than Mark Leonard, who played his father, Sarek, and maybe Jolene Blalock by the end of Enterprise) got it wrong. The brilliance of Nimoy's performance was to act out all the emotions while almost always keeping a mask over them.

The full range of emotions were still there in the eyes, in the posture, in the subtlty of expression, if you were watching closely enough. But even if you weren't watching, you were unconsciously aware of them, and it kept him from being a stilted, human-shaped computer. It was as though he was always performing the role of a poker-player in mid-bluff -- a poker player with a "tell."

And on occasion, the mask slipped aside (think specifically of the moment in the TOS episode "Amok Time," Spock believes he has killed Jim Kirk. On seeing him alive, the mask slips totally aside for a moment of unbridled joy, and then is pulled back with embarrassment.

And that's the key. It's like a proper church-lady. Yes, she certainly has breasts and a vagina, but she certainly isn't going to show them in public, or even acknowledge their existance in polite company. And yes, those five kids came from somewhere, but we certainly aren't going to talk about details, and you'd be unspeakably rude even to draw attention towards the subject.

(Looked upon this way, and in retrospect, the occasional taunting and prodding by McCoy, and to a lesser extent, Kirk, seems cruel and culturally insensitive. You can perhaps excuse it a bit by imagining that they see Spock as a human with some Vulcan ancestry, rather than as a Vulcan with some human ancestry, though Spock clearly portrays himself as the latter. And some of it can simply be written off to the pre-PC era in which the show was spawned. But I prefer those moments in which Kirk very appologetically asks Spock to engage in a mind-meld with an alien for the greater good, despite the way it will force him to lower his emotional screens. Okay, to be honest, I'll be happy if the movie brings back the Kirk/Spock/McCoy banter. Those were good scenes. I just hope it's better justified in the context of their relationship this time.)

And the entire run of the series, and even more so in the movies, it's made clear that Spock has always struggled to control his emotions, and that this was even more true of young Spock. And by definition, the Spock in this movie is going to be a younger Spock. Why shouldn't he slip more?

Nothing we've seen of Spock in any of the trailers contradicts this. Sure, there's a lot of emotion in those early trailers, a lot of physicality. About five seconds of it. Don't the most dramatic bits always end up in the trailer? Even if Spock is that way through the whole film (and based on this last trailer, I don't think that's the case), it still could be justified in the context of what we take as "canon."

Which brings me to my last bit of evidence. The other night, which trying out streaming video on the computer I was hooking up to my television, I stumbled into the site, and discovered the Star Trek episodes available there. I pulled up the HD, remastered version of the first-season episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before."

"Where No Man Has Gone Before" is actually the beginning of the Trek most of us are familiar with it. It's actually the second pilot, the first pilot (Starring Jeffry Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike) having been rejected by NBC. Even more confusingly, it was the third episode to air in the original run. But it's more-or-less "our" original Trek. It's got Kirk, Spock, Scotty and Sulu (McCoy was yet to come, however).

See it here in standard definition or here for HD (remastered version) if you have the bandwidth.

I got sucked into watching the first few minutes of it. There was something very familiar about it, not just because I've seen it a zillion times before in my wasted youth (and occasionally since). It had a rawness, an energy like -- that last Trek movie trailer. It was there in the sense of adventure, the playful banter between the crew in the turbolift, the feeling of always heading into unknown territory.

Sure, it wasn't as fast-paced and kinetic as the movie. Nothing on TV was in those days. The shorthand language of storytelling just didn't exist yet. To a large extent in those days, television series (even Star Trek) were more like stage plays with cameras pointed at them than anything else.

But it feels much the same to me. And that's not a bad thing at all.

And of course, there's Spock. Spock, who claims not to have emotions, but who grins and smirks and growls and frowns through many of his scenes...

What is "canon" for Star Trek? The general rule is that it's anything that appears on-screen in any of the series or movies (with the exception of the 70s animated series, except for one episode, and maybe "Star Trek V," don't ask). This is on-screen, in-series, and Spock is pretty out there.

"Oh," but the die-hards argue, "it's the pilot. The character is still evolving. It doesn't count."

Bull. Purists don't get to pick an choose that way.

I do, of course, because I'm not a purist. I know that allowances have to be made for time, and human error. I get to embrace the emotional version of our Vulcan first-officer (not literally, this isn't your damned slash fiction!).

I get to pretend that the episode "Spock's Brain" never, ever, happened.

You're stuck with it, mr./ms. Purist!

As a kid, I always hated history, because it was always about memorizing dates and battles. It was only later, when I discovered that those things were only a template some stuffed shirts had put over a real world, where people had lived and loved and fought and built the entire world I knew.

That's how I feel about the purist view of Star Trek canon.

It remains to be seen how good or bad the new Trek film will be. I'm hopeful, but I haven't seen it yet. But if it succeeds, it will do so not on its slavish adherance to "canon" but on its ability to tap the spirit of Star Trek and its characters, and to reach not only us old-timers, but an entire new generation of fans.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

An update to "Writers and Other Delusional People," and the "Truths of Writing."

Having learned new truths, and caught myself in a self-delusion, I find it necessary to update this three-year-old post. A lot of people seem to have found it useful the first time around, so go check it out here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Flying Cars Still a Bad Idea

There's been much discussion and media buzz lately about the impending test-flight of the Transition "flying car." No pun, but I've been down this road before. Cool though they are in concept, there's just no practical application (other than as a rich-person's plaything) for flying cars, for a number of fundamental reasons.

Go read my old post about it here. Nothing has really changed (except the tanked economy makes the commercial success of this thing even less likely).

Specifically, just take a look at this thing. It makes an ugly little car (it's not exactly a pretty airplane either), and I'll bet it drives about as well as it looks. It has two seats, no trunk, and it's likely that the slightest fender bender will render it unairworthy.

None of this would be a deal-breaker if it cost the same as an ugly little car, but the anticipated cost (and these things have a way of inflating before they're finalized) is close to $200k. If I pay $200K for a car, I expect it to go more than 65mph (165mph is more like it) or at least have a wet bar in the back. (In fact, the Transition only goes 115mph as an airplane, and it doesn't even have a back.)

Though I remembered my post on this subject, I'd forgotten I'd talked about some other perpetual futuristic ideas I thought were also bad ideas (video-phones, touch-screen computers) and those I thought would eventually catch on (ebooks readers).

So far, looks like I'm right about the video phones. Touch-screen computers of various sorts are starting to show some promise thanks to improved interface design, but I'm still doubtful these are ever going to become more than a secondary input device on non-handheld devices.

As for ebooks, sales were a rare growth area over the holidays, and Amazon is once again sold out of its Kindle reader. I think we've finally hit critical mass on this technology, though prices still need to come down, and the devices need to be more flexible.

All in all, my crystal ball is still looking pretty shiny at the moment.

Which makes me feel bad, because the Terrafugia folks who make the Transition are certainly very clever people. I just don't see it ending well though. Sorry, guys.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

"Daemon" and the self-publishing question

Oh, noes!

I couldn't help but notice an article in yesterday's USA Today about the self-published thriller "Daemon." (Ever notice how it's awkward to talk about "USA Today" in anything other than the present tense? I hate that.) You can't tell from the on-line edition, but the story is pitched in the print edition using somewhat more colorful language.

From the front-page sidebar: "Daniel Suarez's self published techno-thriller, a hit, nets a two-book contract with Dutton."

And the sub-title on the article: "Web makes hit of internet tale."

Interestingly, the attention-getting word "hit" doesn't appear anywhere in the on-line version.

You can read the article yourself, but the gist is that Daniel Suarez (writing under the pseudonym Leinad Zerauz, which is Daniel Suarez backwards, in case you didn't figure that out) produced a high-tech thriller which he tried unsuccessfully to market to conventional publishers. He then went the self-publishing route, promoting the book through bloggers and on-line pundits to achieve enough success to interest a major publisher. The book sold on a two-book contract, and movie rights have been optioned a major player.


Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are going to see exactly three words out of this article: self published and hit.

As you know, in past posts (here and here) I've thrown my share of muck recently at the whole idea of self-publishing, so I was curious as to the facts here.

In a way, I anticipated this in my first post on the subject. Without making you go back to read it, here's what I had to say about it at the time:

The whole vanity publishing thing is like Dracula. You think you've got it staked real good, and it just keeps popping out of the grave. It doesn't help that every now and then you hear (usually a lot, because it makes a good story) about the exceptions to the rule, the self-published books that went on to great success, that were picked up by major publishers, and in a few cases, even turned into New York Times best-sellers.

I shake my head every time I hear one of these, because they are rare exceptions, because most of them would have sold through conventional means if the author had only been a little smarter about it, and because I know it's the nature of would-be writers to treat any crumb of false-hope like the all-you-can-eat buffet at the Rio.

Just because somebody won 40 million in the Powerball doesn't mean you should invest your life savings in lottery tickets.

It still leaves questions though. If Daemon is an exception, what kind of exception is it? It is a fluke, or the vanguard of some new trend? Does it change in any way the basic issues of self-publishing? What can we learn from it?

Like I said, to figure that out, I needed facts, and USA Today was notably light on those. At least the kind of background information that I'd need to make any judgments about about how Daemon came to be. Fortunately, it did mention a Wired article that helped bring the book into prominence, and that was easy to find on-line. Not surprisingly, the Wired piece (read it here) has some more meat on its factual bones, enough to develop some more informed opinions about the situation.

First question: What efforts did Suarez make to place his book initially with a conventional publisher?

According to the Wired piece, his effort weren't minimal, but they were probably less than exhaustive. He submitted to "dozens" of agents. That's a little vague, but I'd say it's probably not close to or over a hundred, or they would have said "nearly a hundred," or "over a hundred" or "hundreds." My gut feeling is we're talking a couple of dozen here, though that's only a guess.

In any case, a quick search for "general fiction" agents on Publisher's Marketplace turned up 233 pages (some of which might be agencies with multiple agents). Not all of those are going to handle thrillers, but I think it's reasonably safe to say that Suarez ran out of patience before he ran out of agents.

Of the number he did submit to, he reports that "three read it." Unless he received several-dozens-minus-three letters telling him that they didn't read it, I suspect what this means is, he got three responses. Lack of response doesn't necessarily mean lack of consideration. Sad but true, in the publishing world, no response is simply another way of saying "no." Of the three that did respond, he reports that one said it was "too long" (I don't see any mention of how long the book actually is) and the other two that it was "too complex."

The article doesn't tell us if those responses were of the "get lost" variety or if maybe they were suggesting a rewrite to correct what the agents (correctly or not) perceived to be legitimate marketing problems, of if they were saying "close, what else have you got?"

Frankly, it's often difficult, even for those of us who have been in the business a while, to read past the "does not meet our needs" part of a rejection letter for the editor or agent's actual intent, so it's highly possible that Suarez wouldn't have known the difference anyway.

Let's look at the options that Suarez apparently didn't take in marketing Daemon.

He apparently didn't keep submitting till he ran out of agents.

He didn't rewrite the book to respond to the agent's marketing concerns.

Okay, I'm not saying he should have rewritten the book at this point, just that it was an option.

My gut sense is that this was a good call. Start rewriting when you're out of marketing options. I'm also guessing that the "too complex" comments were way off base. The "too long" comment could have been fundamentally right though, even if the book has now sold at the longer length. This is guesswork, of course. I don't know how long it is. But since thrillers are often big books anyway, I'm guessing that this is really, really long. Overly long books are a harder sell. Maybe this book needs to be this long, but I'll just bet it could be tightened (and one wonders if that will happen by the time the print edition comes out).

Okay, and the third thing he apparently didn't do: He didn't submit the book directly to publishers. It's a totally fallacy that you can't get a book read or sold without an agent. Yes, it can be more difficult to get in the door, especially for a new author, but it can be done. Near as I can tell, Suarez didn't try.

Bottom line, it's by no means certain that the book wouldn't have sold without going the self-publishing route. Maybe self-publishing was a valid route to publication for this particular book, but it's also possible that it was simply a pointless detour on the way to the final destination.

There's something else we can learn here though. The book did sell. It sold for major money. It sold without an agent (though not through the most direct method possible). It apparently sold without being shortened (at least in submitted form) or dumbed down. Though not yet published, it's already gotten good reviews from Booklist and a starred review in Publisher's Weekly.

From this we can take three important lessons:
1. Agents can keep you from selling books as easily as they can help you sell them.
2. Agents don't know everything.
3. Sometimes, agents don't know anything.

Next question...

Was Daemon a "hit" as a self-published book?

By the standards of self-publishing, it was pretty darned successful. Maybe even hugely so. What information I have comes from the Wired article, which was published in their August issue of last year, so they can't be assumed to be current. But at some point the book was selling 50 copies a month, and as of March of last year, the book had reportedly sold 1,200 copies.

Underwhelmed? Well, breaking four-digits in total sales is huge for self-published book. I'm fairly certain that few break three-digits.

It's pretty likely that Suarez made a profit off his self-publishing venture, but it's hard to know how much. I don't know how much he spent, for instance, on set-up, editorial and design costs. I don't know how much (if anything) he's spent on other promotional efforts. I also don't know what the cover price on his POD edition (sold through Lightning Source) was, or what his deal with Lightning Source was.

Let's just take a wild (and perhaps generous) guess and say he made $10 per copy. That translates into $12,000. This isn't chicken-feed, but it's pretty puny by publishing standards. That's a entry-to-low-midlist advance.

In reporting deals, Publisher's Marketplace calls this a "Nice deal." That means it's in the $1-49,000 dollar range, their polite way of saying its at the bottom of the publishing food change. And I'll confess, the biggest deal I've ever gotten is at the ragged high-end of "Nice." I'd be happy to get another such "nice" deal today.

(The Dutton deal seems to have turned the original book into an instant collector's item, with used copies on Amazon selling at $80. Ironically, if Suarez had gone the traditional vanity-press route, he might be liquidating the pallet of books in his garage for some serious bonus-scratch right now.)

Okay, so what did Suarez make going with a traditional publisher? Well, first of all, lets observe first that he did go with a traditional publisher. Apparently without hesitation. If self-publishing is so swell, ask yourself, why was he so quick to cast it aside?

Neither USA Today or Wired was any help here, so I turned to Publisher's Marketplace and their deal-tracker feature for info. The deal was announced in May, two months after the cover date of the Wired article. An agent did handle the deal (interestingly, from their PM listing, they mainly handle business and technical non-fiction, and Daemon is their only listed fiction deal of any kind).

So what did he get? Well, PM doesn't give specific numbers, but it wasn't a "Nice" deal. It wasn't "Very Nice," their next category, meaning deals from $50,000-99,000 It wasn't "Good." It wasn't "Good." It wasn't "Significant." No, it went right to their highest category, "Major Deal." That means $500,000 and up. That's the advance (though for a two book deal, not one). If the book takes off, there could be significant royalties, foreign sales, subsidiary rights, and he's already sold a movie option for unknown money.

And mind you, that "Major Deal" is just what they're passing along to the author. The publisher has an expectation of grossing at least 6-10 times that. That's a lot of books. That's a hell of a lot more than 1,200 books.

So, it's obvious why Suarez went with a regular publisher. For a book like his, self-publishing sucks.

Real publishers know that too. They look at a self-publishing "hit" and figure that if a self-publisher, even a motivated self-publisher like Suarez, can sell 1,200 copies, they can sell ten times that amount without breaking a sweat. If the book is good and they put a little effort in, they can probably sell a hundred times as many. Maybe a thousand.

Most self-published books are over-valued by the people publishing them. Most are unmarketable, flawed, or lacking in some why that they're better off not being published and will never find a market.

But when a success like this comes along, it usually means the self-publisher has undervalued their work. Whatever sales and returns they're getting from their self-publishing efforts, they could be doing much better with a regular publisher.


Now, this post shouldn't be taken as a criticism of Suarez or his choices. He's written what is reportedly a good book, and he's found a path to success. Great success. And as I said up front, I don't have all the facts on his history or circumstances. I'm reading a lot from a little data.

But was self-publishing an absolutely necessary part of that success? Perhaps, but I remain unconvinced. Even if it was for this book, there are special circumstances.

The bloggers that Suarez used to create early buzz on the books were the very ones he'd mined to research the novel, so of course they were likely to respond positively. And it should hardly be a surprise that a book about the internet is especially suited to being promoted on the internet.

None of this applies to your self-published cozy mystery or literary novel about a girl growing up in Poland in 1939. It probably doesn't apply to your thriller, unless it's also about computers and the net.

The book also found an important advocate, Rick Klau, an executive at Feedburner (now part of Google). I don't see how that could be anticipated or replicated.

Finally, there's nothing about the self-publishing that leads inevitably to the Wired, article, which I suspect had more to do with getting the Dutton deal than any other single factor (other than the quality of the book itself).

Suarez found a path to success. It's impossible to say it was the best path, and it almost certainly wasn't the only path. But you can't argue with success.

That still doesn't mean that this path can be emulated, or that you should even try.