In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


Have Teleprompter, Will Travel

One of the reasons I started my Patreon page was to defray the cost of certain items and services needed to advance my writing career so I can spend more time writing. The impetus for the change was a teleprompter I started tinkering together over the holidays.

Over the years, I’ve cobbled together all sorts of photographic gear, tools, gizmos, and software–but there is always a consideration of what in business school is called “the make or buy decision.” These days, when I start to build or repair or clean or fabricate, a proverbial birdie rests on my shoulder, singing “you should be writing, you should be writing.”

Building a teleprompter looked to be a poor use of my time. Cobbling together a usable lighting rig was an even poorer use of my time. Recording my first couple of videos using only the little Canon Powershot I use for appearances–and syncing the video up with audio from an external recorder was….Jimminy Cricket! Like going back to the days of 8mm movie film and splicing cuts with cellophane tape!

But if I’m going to use video to help build an audience, I need a teleprompter so I don’t have to waste vast quantities of time and blood pressure memorizing scripts. A teleprompter is a device that lets the camera shoot through a piece of glass reflecting text out to the performer. It lets you address the audience directly without constantly looking up and down and loosing your place or looking like you on a Zoom meeting.
Like a lot of things, the fundamental technology isn’t as exotic as it used to be. For one thing, instead of extraordinarily special purpose optics to reverse the text, you can now just install an app on a tablet. And with millions of YouTubers creating a new low-end audio visual market, the special glass that gives teleprompters a bright, clear image isn’t as special purpose as it used to be.

Even so, teleprompters are expensive, and the only ones in my price range are only big enough for a cell phone–and my eyesight isn’t that good. Finally, about the time I made my Patreon account, I found a deal on a tablet sized ultra simple teleprompter for only $75 and put my order in….and never got it. As of today, it’s still officially backordered, but I suspect the deal was just a little too good. The glass alone is worth that price.
So…with both my Patreon and YouTube channels slowly growing stale, I decided to finish up my DIY job and harvest the glass out of the Chinese discount model if it ever actually arrives. And so I give you (Drum roll please), the Tinkerator 2000, DIY Teleprompter!
Featuring solid pine, superglue, a broken certificate frame, odds and ends from the garage that I should have thrown out years ago but as soon as you throw it away you’ll realize the one perfect thing you could have used it for, and such hardware as I could not forgo or improvise but could order online during a pandemic.
The Tinkerator 2000 folds flat for storage, features Velcro attached stays to guard against accidental glass shattering collapse, and a luxurious old T-shirt light shade resting atop a deep, Velcro secured top support to guard against stray movie lights.

Videos to follow.

It’s Not a Nuke – Here’s How I Know

I write this moments after a massive explosion rocked the port of Beirut Lebanon, and before the wold can catch a breath and think what help might be appropriate, online conspiracy nuts are whispering “nuke.”
It was not a nuke. He’s how we know:

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Can We Really Touch Anything?

That depends on your definition of “touch.”

Obviously we can touch things. You are touching something right now that’s preventing you from falling to the center of Earth’s gravitational field. The thing is, “touching” may not mean what you think it does.

If you play pool, “touching” may conjure the firm crack of cue against ball, but if you’ve ever flown a kite, you know you can touch the air in a much squishier way.

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How to Avoid Teaching Your Kids to Hate Vegetables

I am reposting this here after it went viral on a website I contribute to. I cannot claim credit for this method; it stems from a parenting book by T. Berry Brazelton, but I can tell you it works–and what my parents did didn’t, though it veered at times into authoritarian abuse.

Here is what I did, from the time my children started on solid food:

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To The Mayor Of Every US City

I sent this letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner, of Houston:


For what it’s worth, I have a suggestion relevant to the current state of unrest.

I hope we can agree that while the police are an essential, and for the most part positive element in our society, America’s police today–as a community–are too prone to escalation, too free with violent action, too tolerant of racism, too adept at covering for their own transgressions, and too ineffectual at the community dialogue essential to maintaining understanding and engagement with the communities they serve. Some departments are better in some these areas than others, but as a nation, this is the state we’re in. America’s police are too racist, but they are also to militant, too often needlessly belligerent, and too often a haven for those looking for cart blanche to hurt others.

Thus, to end this unrest–and more important, the decades of injustice behind it–we need a bold, public, transparent national initiative to reform our police, to put in place standards of conduct, training, and community oversight to effectively address all these problems. Especially the community oversight–over all objections by the unions.

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You Gotta Have Skills

Since I started seriously writing, I’ve learned there are a vast assortment of skills I might logically profit by that I just don’t have. And I’m not talking about grammar and spelling, or judging when to use active voice or how to write dialog that sounds true to life but isn’t as dull and repetitive as life—though those are all on the list.

No, I’m talking about the meta-skills, the things writers need to know these days that have nothing (or little) directly to do with writing, skills like using software to create promotional signage and book layouts, reading stories before an audience (or into a microphone for audiobooks), hawking your wares from a comic con booth or yes….begging for money.

That last might seem an odd choice for someone like me with major contest wins and a string of top market professional sales under my belt. But the sad truth is, short stories just don’t pay very much, and unless you hide all the other writers in a cupboard somewhere, it’s almost impossible to sell more than a few per year at professional rates.

So…as I work on the core skills (the prosy ones and the butt in chair, actually writing the novel ones) I started thinking a few years back, that it would be wise if I had a plan in place, should the need arise, to convince the IRS that yes, this writing thing really is a business that will one day turn a net profit after appearances and expenses.

My first step along those lines was to create Got Scifi Group, a small imprint and informal collaborative of some of my award-winning writer friends, for the purpose of producing anthologies that those of us who make appearances and don’t yet have a back list of novels can sell at a measurable profit.

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A Moment Which Will Live in Infamy


In this, the first week of May, 2020, many are arguing for the reopening of the US economy, often arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic just isn’t bad as the media makes out. Let’s look at that claim.

It is true that in 2020 thus far, with social distancing (such as it is), the US has seen “only” 75,000+ COVID-10 deaths compared to nearly 400,000 heart disease & cancer deaths in a typical year during the same period. But there is a vital difference that makes these numbers incomparable: we are not developing 200,000 new cases of cancer & heart disease every WEEK (as we are currently with COVID-19) and cancer and heart disease are not contagious and cannot double in number every few days as COVID-19 can.

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The Bounce Commeth

Today, Texas is living in denial. In a month, its people will be paying the price.

Back in March, when Harris County unexpectedly cancelled the Houston Livestock & Rodeo, residents were taking things seriously. SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 has a slow incubation time, but the numbers don’t lie when you plot them. Slowly, new confirmation rates started growing at a slowing rate as the virus burned through the supply of infected but not yet ill people. Then, by the first week of April, the growth of new cases flattened, then actually started to drop.

And so, the state and federal “leadership” decided to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and encouraged parishioners to attend Easter services–insisting that the worst was behind us. And it might have been, had the government used the time wisely, had it put in place the sort of testing and contact tracking used in South Korea over the same time to bring the virus to its knees. But not here. No way, that there’d be commie talk.

Here, there worst was not behind us. Of course it wasn’t. All the experts SAID it wasn’t. They said there would be a spike in new cases after Easter–and there was. Not only that, beaches around the country started opening, “leaders” gave increasingly conflicted messages, and idiot protesters filled the streets and the Internet with idiot messages like “you can’t hide from disease.” Maybe not, brainiac, but you can at least wear a mask and wash your hands when you meet it.

That was then. Now, Texas has caved to economic and political pressure and returned to business as usual. Sure, there’s a lot of talk about a staged return to work, but drive around and see. The roads are full. Everything is open. Mexican restaurants are filled with unmasked patrons clustered around communal chips. Hair is being cut, nails done, crap sold at the doller store. A few people are wearing masks–people like me who can work from home indefinitely, actually paid attention in science class, and don’t ascribe to a worldview that equates responsible behavior or minor sacrifice for the common good with communism. You know–people who actually know what communism means, and that socialism won all the wars we’re so proud of and put those Corvette owners on the moon.

Today, down here in the real world, the data looks pretty bad for Texas. We have just experienced our largest weekly case growth thus far–and that’s with the farcically half assed testing regime that is barely up to taking the state’s collective temperature, much less actually preventing deaths. The growth curve for new cases has already tipped skyward, and in the next two weeks is likely to be as steep as ever. And two weeks after that–we could again be headed for economic collapse as the population falls ill en masse. We can pay now or pay later–and we’ve choosen not to take the discounted price of testing, tracking, and not all being dicks about it.

Meanwhile, we have learned a lot about the virus. We’ve learned that at least on anti viral drug appear to be helpful–though not the one the president bought by that container ship load. And we’ve learned that the only available over the counter anti-tussant helps this virus replicate–so that’s swell. And we’ve learned that COVID-19 is an aggressive killer of the morbidly obese, but fortunately we don’t have many of those…oh wait… And we’ve learned that this virus, adapting to humans what it evolved in some other host, is doing weird things–causing strokes and blood clots, scaring lungs, having weird neurological impacts, and who knows what else.

Oh, and in case anyone’s still paying attention, we’ve lost more people to this disease in a month that to the flu in a bad year, and this virus is not tapering off with the warming of the season.

The will be no miracle. The miracle is, we managed to evolve a brain that can see and cope with an invisible virus–and yet is too stupid to do it.

Whatever. Ya’ll do what you want. Go to church. Go to Denny’s. Glad hand one another, and whatever you do, don’t wear a mask. Be a man. Be a Texan. Be the poster-people for evolution.

Just drop off the voter rolls when you go.

How Much Radiation Leaks From Your Oven?

Very little, and it’s mostly in the form of light shining through the door.

“Radiation” just means anything projected through space. It includes potentially harmful neutron, gamma, and x-ray radiation, but it also includes sunlight, new ideas, and the petals of flowers.

The word “radiation” does not mean “magic death cooties,” and just because a device emits radiation doesn’t mean it can hurt you without falling off a counter and hitting your foot.

All electrical devices emit “radiation.” That’s because any oscillating movement of electrons—say like those in the wiring in your house—produces electromagnetic radiation.

This is not the sort of radiation that falls from the sky after a nuclear war or the type that bounces around inside a nuclear reactor or even the kind produced by traces of radioactive potassium in your bones—remnant of the stars that were here long before the Earth.

No, electromagnetic radiation comes in a range of frequencies or energy levels, from gamma rays at one end of the spectrum all the way down to radio at the other.

Gamma rays and x-rays, at the high end of the spectrum, can harm living things because photons of gamma ray or x-ray light are strong enough to break chemical bonds—and life is made out of chemistry.

Below X-rays on the spectrum is the so called “ultraviolet light.” UV light is right above the visible light part of the spectrum, and is right at the crossover point when electromagnetic radiation stops having the ability to break chemical bonds. The upper end of the UV band (called UV-C) can damage living things, and is used in hospital sterilizers for that reason. The rest of the UV band (UV-B and UV-A) can’t break chemical bonds, but can push them over the edge if they were about to break anyway, and so can damage living things in some cases. UV-B and UV-A is the light that gives you a tan and increase the risk of cancer—but it’s also important to normal vitamin D and cholesterol metabolism.

Below this, visible light is the middle part of the spectrum that we are evolved to perceive. We see in visible light frequencies because those are the frequencies that tend to be reflected off objects — higher and lower frequencies tend to pass right through solid objects, and so are less useful for looking around for dinner and harder to detect (because they pass through the detector too).

Visible light is the only kind of radiation that a normally operating microwave oven produces in any significant amount; it shines out through the door so you can see when your oatmeal boils over.

Radio and microwaves — at the low end of the spectrum — cannot break chemical bonds. The only way radio can hurt you is if you are not paying attention while listing to the top-40 hits on your daily run and fall down an open manhole. The only way microwaves can hurt you is if you break into a locked radar facility, climb up on the transmitter, and use it as your own personal microwave oven—and even that’s not very likely.

Microwaves (and radio) interact only weakly with matter. Microwave ovens actually required clever design even in order to heat up you burrito. If you were to defeat all the safeties and run a microwave oven with the door missing (don’t do that) the microwaves would mostly fly out through the room (radiate) and off down the street to interfere with the neighbor’s cordless phone.

To stop this from happening, microwave ovens are little microwave reflective boxes that bounce the microwaves back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and until they finally soak into the freaking burrito already — adding a little heat.

When a few quintillion photons of microwave energy are absorbed by a burrito, it starts to warm up. If it warms up enough, it’ll cook and melt the cheese nice and soft the way you like it. If it warms up too much for too long, it’ll grow tough, dry out, burn, and maybe even catch fire—none of which has anything to do with radiation or how the heat was applied.

The only way you can tell this is happening is to look through the door. The door to a microwave oven is a Faraday shield—a conductive grid made with spaces far smaller than the 4.8 inch wavelength of the microwave “radiation” that prevents it from passing through.

Some leakage does occur. In the United States, federal law (21 CFR 1030.10) limits the leakage to 5 milliwatts per square centimeter at approximately 2 inches from the oven surface. Since EM radiation spreads out through space, this means the dosage would be no more than 0.05 milliwatts per square centimeter 20 inches from the oven, and of course that assume it’s operating.

Thus, for the poorest designed, crappiest maintained, most powerful microwave oven, there’s about 3,500 times more energy inside the oven than there is 2 inches from the door—and the energy inside the oven actually wouldn’t hurt you beyond warming you up. Microwaves are, in fact, used in certain medical applications to safely warm living tissue.

COVID-19 is not the Flu.

A huge misconception about the SARS-Cov-2 Coronavirus is that it’s similar to seasonal fluenza. Well, both are respiratory infections (as are colds) but that’s where the similarities stop. And the more we learn about this new virus, the stranger it appears.

  • The Flu’s R0 number is 1.3 whereas COVID-19 is 2-2.5, meaning it’s about twice as contagious;
  • The incubation period for the flu is four days whereas COVID-19 is 14 days; meaning it can spread far and wide before it’s detected.
  • The average flu hospitalization rate is 2% whereas COVID-19 is 19%; meaning that even for the young and healthy, it’s more likely to be costly and leave lasting disability.
  • The flu’s case fatality rate is 0.1% whereas COVID-19 is 1-3.4%;
  • Currently, there is no COVID-19 vaccine whereas there is are effective vaccines for most flu virus strains;

There is, however, one way that SARS-Cov-2 is like the flu — an infected person is most infectious before they develop symptoms. This has been known about flu for decades, and why it hasn’t influenced public health advice much during the pandemic is hard to fathom.

With social distancing now starting to pay dividends even in the US, many are starting to advocate for a return to normal, but they DO NOT understand the reality. This pandemic may slow, but will not end due to warm weather or social distancing along. If we simply go back to normal, we will certainly create a “second wave” and again overwhelm our health care system. So what about over countries that have weathered the first wave without a national lockdown? There are only a few, and they all had acted on the lessons of the SARS and MERS scares of recent years.

South Korea, for example, had 9,000 SARS-CoV-2 tests ready on the day the first indigenous case was reported, and quickly scaled up to delivering over 20,000 tests per day. They didn’t just test those who felt ill and requested it, but the second level contacts of those found to be infected. Then they published the locations of known cases–and the known movements of known carriers on a smart phone app so they citizens could avoid the infection without the need to stay home. They issue surgical masks to the general public (because the science of the last two decades has made clear that that works) and filled the airwaves and social media with training on how to use them and other measures effectively.

The results have been dramatic. After an initial spike, and despite crushing population density, South Korea has turned the COVID-19 growth curve on it’s head and started going back to normal.

We CAN do the same, but only the way they did–only be the use of science and common sense, and the advice of smart people.