In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


The Best Care?

So, here in the US, we have the best medical care in the world, eh?

I go to my GP–who refers me for a simple x-ray. Two days to get the (digital) x-ray and he can’t tell anything, so he refers me to a specialist. He doesn’t forward the (digital) x-rays, though, so they x-ray me again—before she examines me and determines it’s likely a navicular stress fracture and they often won’t show up in x-rays. If it is broken, it needs a cast and crutches. So she refers me for an MRI, but they can’t take me for two weeks and then another 3-5 five days to deliver the (digital) results–a third of the time it takes a bone to heal! I argue, and they fit me in five days earlier. Swell.

I call the specialist back and talk to her PA and he sends me back to the same place that took the original x-rays for the GP. They can squeeze me in Tuesday, so with luck, and these highly-paid medicoes don’t know how to FTP a file, maybe I’ll get a diagnosis in a week. Maybe then the specialist will prescribe the cast and crutches that are clearly needed in any event. With my luck, the MRI will turn up something else in the ankle and it’ll take another week of testing.

 You know, in Japan, an MRI costs $160 and they have twice the number of machines per capita that we have. I miss the Air Force. I miss socialized medicine. I miss waiting for hours in a cheap cinder block room with vinyl chairs and the smell of floor wax—and leaving the building with tests complete, medicine in hand, and crutches in play. They weren’t perfect, but they were cheap and effective and for most routine care, superior in many ways to the Roles Royce waiting rooms my exorbitant premiums subsidize today.

Meanwhile, I bought my own crutches and put on the walking cast my wife used last year.


In Houston, the original Foley’s department store was built in 1947 and operated continually until Macy’s purchased the chain and realized the block of prime downtown real estate is far more valuable as land than for selling ties. Sunday, they blew it up.

More to the point, they imploded it. From my office a block away, we watched demolition workers preparing for a week before we set up a timed camera to capture this video. A trench was cut to isolate the structure from the surrounding sidewalk. Plywood was erected to protect neighboring offices. The glass roof was removed from the train stop. Holes we cut all over the building and threaded with steel cables to help control the implosion.

When you watch the video, note that you can hear–but cannot see–a number of explosions. That’s because the explosives are cutting through the infrastructure–not the exterior surfaces. Once the building has been undermined, it crumples inward. This is how imposion is done.

It continues to amaze me that people can watch the collapse of the World Trade Center towers and think they are watching a controlled implosion. No. When the towers fell, the outer walls buckled irregularly. The outer walls fell ahead of the core. The first ten stories or so of the core remained more or less intact afterward (and a company of firemen emerged from the top of the rubble pile). This is all the exact opposite of implosion. This is what can lead to a building toppling over into its neighbors (which is just what the terrorists hoped for). The number of charges involved simply could not have been installed without a major and conspicuous effort. It didn’t happen. Its preposterous.

Enjoy the video. It’s science for the win, and if that’s not entertaining enough for you, then please, stay away from the conspiracy sites and wait for my novels. Even they are more plausible than some of this stuff.

A Roar in the Darkness

It is difficult to describe the sound made by a turbojet engine, but I’m a writer; I can do it.

Imagine a couple of little girls clowning in the bathroom, screaming at the top of their lungs as only little girls can do, their screeches reverberating off the tile and running together like a skewer through your eardrums. Now imagine that as a steady sound, modulated by a fan spinning a thousand revolutions a minute and amplified by six foot speakers of the sort employed by a well-funded heavy metal rock band. Now multiply that by eight, one for every engine on a B-52 bomber, and by the six steel and concrete interior surfaces of a military hanger, and if you imagine for a moment that a rabid ice pick is grinding its way up through the fractured remains of your vertebrae and into your skull, then you’ve got the picture just about right.

When I was five or six, my mother pulled me out of bed one night and whisked me and my brother and sister off through the moonless darkness to pick up our daddy. He’d been gone a long time, and though I didn’t quite understand it at the time, he had been on temporary duty in southeast Asia, dropping cluster bombs and napalm from a machine engineered to save the world from godless commies or kill us all in the effort.

Men in blue uniforms and green nylon flight suites met us at the car and ushered us into the darkened hanger, a big, gray building on a big, gray sea of concrete. My mother put me down and conferred with one of the uniformed men and led me to believe that daddy had just landed. We were in one of the original hangers built during the forties when the base first opened, a line of which stood as a sort of bulwark between the streets and buildings where the people lived and worked and the tarmac where the flight machines strutted and preened. I knew the hanger was much too small for Daddy’s Stratofortress, but I expected any moment that the great jungle-green beast would poke its nose under the roof and the door would open and down would come a yellow adder and daddy’s leather boots and a trunk full of coconuts and gifts from Japan and Thailand. What I didn’t expect was the sound.

Presently, we heard the sing-song whine of the jet approaching through the ubiquitous backdrop of aircraft engines in motion, at idle, and lumbering on their test stands. Outside the giant telescoping doors, an airman waved flashlights with colored plastic signal cones. Another stooped to retrieve something from the shadows. Still others ran about purposefully, then darted back into the hanger. All of these men wore hearing protection, and not mere earplugs or the meager earmuffs one might see on the shooting range, but serious, bulky units in military gray.

The whine shifted and moved, then rose in pitch and broke into the coarse, disharmonic roar of jets under power, as if Niagara falls had gone on a bender and come to tell us off, shouting from the parking lot till the ground shook and the metal walls rattled—or perhaps my eardrums did. Then a flashing red light cleared the rolling doors and the sing-song whine returned, reverberating through the suddenly tiny hanger till the black shadow of the airplane came to rest and the engines spun down, all but one, and finally, through I felt I must have blood pouring from my ears by then, the last engine spun to a stop.

We were glad to see daddy, and I think he was touched, though he still had paperwork to do and was too exhausted from the flight to show much emotion and would probably just as soon have swung by the O-club for a drink before heading home. When we pulled back into our driveway after midnight, the neighbor had set out a great illuminated sign: “Welcome home Maj. Hardwick,” and I could still hear the turbines drilling through my head.

I’m not sure whose bright idea this all was. It is distinctly possible I suffered permanent hearing loss. For as long as I can remember, I’ve avoided loud noise and worn hearing protecting around machinery. When I was in college I carried ear plugs in case I got invited to a club or party.

That was a long, long time ago, but I’ll never forget the grating feel of the jet roar conducted through my bones. We called it a cold war, but it was fought with real jet fuel and explosives. It was fought by real soldiers, tired men and women whose families waited just beyond the flight line, the front line in a new and endless kind of war.


Is VOIP Slowing Your Network

While working on my home network, I moved my VOIP modem downstream of the wireless router with the result that my download speed immediately doubled.

I’ve used voice over IP service since 2004, and I think this is the original VOIP modem. Apparently, it’s been acting as a bottleneck ever since. It didn’t matter in the old wireless-b days, and the fact that it hasn’t had more impact on the last few years of increasing use of streaming video is a testament to the resiliency of digital packet communications. But I’m glad I found it now.

So go take a look at your cables. Let no restraint stand between you and the web.

Open Source Surfing

I recently replaced my old Linksys WRT-G wireless-g router with a new ASUS RT-N66U wireless n. I did this mostly to get some new features and better coverage as only a few of my devices support the newer n wifi standard. But the connection has been spotty on my new Dell Inspirion 2020 and the Linksys has never offered good signal quality and the ASUS had glowing reviews.

So I upgraded and things improved. But while the connection on the Dell is clearly better overall, it still frequently slows and stumbles—as in, when it works it works well, but it often doesn’t work at all for minutes at a time and it works well only occasionally. Not acceptable. I won’t bore you with my sleuthing, but it turns out my problem is mostly wall geometry and interference. Microwaves bounce off of almost anything and I’ve already moved my network equipment to the most central feasible location.

What to do? I could run cat-5 cable from the router to my office. I could buy a wireless-N repeater. There are even a couple of devices that bridge from wireless to USB or SD cards, though none of these offer much better throughput than what the old Wireless-G router would give, if only the signal quality wasn’t a problem.

So…I pulled out the old router, went to, and read over the long and complex instructions for switching to the DD-WRT open source firmware. To make this work, I had to install tftp, futz around with the Dell’s network settings a bit, and replace the router firmware with three different incremental versions. But finally, after about an hour, I had it done and followed these instructions to configure the old router as a wifi repeater.

That done, the old Linksys connects to my new router and I connect by Dell to the Linksys acting as a repeater. I did some initial testing. With a wireless G connection to the repeater sitting across the office on a high shelf, I was getting twice the throughput I had ever gotten on the Dell with its N connection and getting it consistently. Why? Because even through the WRT-G is older technology, it’s simply got a better radio and a far better antenna than the Dell. Plus, the Dell is an all-in-one design, so its unimpressive wireless chip is probably further hampered by noise–as is often the case when electronics are crammed in a small space.

Next I turned off the Dell’s wireless and plugged it into the repeater via a cat5 cable. Now, according to, where I was getting download speeds of between 2.5 and 4 Mbps, I now consistently get speeds between 9.5 and 11 Mbps. That’s actually the same as I get if I plug directly into my cable modem. In other words, I now have a solid 54Mbps connection, which is faster than what my cable provider can feed. So that’s as fast a connection as is possible at this time. No need to crawl through the attic with a 70-foot’ cat5 cable. No need to pay $50-$150 for a wireless n repeater.  Just a few minutes and some free software.

Ah, open source. It’s the future.

As From a Ghost

Once, I was browsing for music at the local mall when I noticed a familiar splash of color. It was a girl: thin and pretty and wearing a cheery, white-and-orange checked sundress. She was turned the other way, talking to her friend, her face obscured by straight, auburn hair spilling down to her waist.

I knew her, though. I knew the way one knows his kin and kindred in a pressing mob, more by hints of mannerism and movement than by any specific detail. When I said her name, she turned and spoke, a sweet tone, a kind word, a pleasing, sensuous smile.

The wrong smile, not your smile, and I scurried off as from a ghost.

Empire Lost

As a writing exercise, I was asked to re-imagine a scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost in a more contemporary setting. I could imagine none more appropriate:

A puddle plunked where the stone of the platform should be. Darkness in daytime. The kind of day Japan had seen too many of, the kind that wiped Pompei and Krakatoa maybe. The dark shifted a little, just enough to show a bit of sky instead of roof.

I climbed, through or over what I still don’t know. I climbed the way a man does when he hasn’t figured yet if he’s half-buried or half-dead. I stopped when there was nothing left to climb. When I thought, maybe both.

Tuesday, a handful of yen and a pack of smokes had bought a night in Mrs. Ying’s comfort house near the unfinished imperial bunker outside Nagano. I’d been sent to fetch minister Tōgō south for a meeting with Stalin’s man. If Japan was the land of the rising sun, it had seen brighter days. But the mighty imperial navy had shown its stuff, and so had imperial mettle. The meeting was to take place inside the great Mitsubishi torpedo and ammunition plant. We’d helped Stalin beat Hitler just by remaining neutral. In coming years, we’d help him beat the Americans just by staying alive. At least, that was the message on Tuesday.

This was Thursday. Tōgō was dead. The train station was gone above the platform—the ammunition plant too, and the Kawanami shipyards and—hell, all of Nagasaki. Not peppered by American bombers. Not burning and scarred and broken up. Gone. Erased. From the river to the hills.

Brown twilight drifted with smoke and the smell of burning flesh, and hung over fire and misery in all directions. Across the way, the cathedral gate poked up columns like logs from a fire. The dome lay in filth like a turned-out chamber pot. Where cherry trees had marked the canal, there wer eonly tangled girders, curling shattered roofs, and piles of tile and brick. Close by, there were other piles, heaps of rubble and ordinary things: chair legs, a shoe, a silver bento melted and charred. The station clock lay on a mound of rubble and charcoaled limbs. The face was black. The hands were gone. Flash-burned shadows read eleven o’clock.

Behind me, the rail line was just another heap, a tunnel from the mighty empire south into hell. Tōgō was dead, and the prefect. But it didn’t take a prefect to read what it meant. It meant the war was over, the empire done. Like an over-confident sumo apprentice, Japan had forced its enemy across the ring, only to be crushed by his weight.

And that was it. Two million dead and a generation of fanatics who so balled up history it was good for nothing but setting fires. Well, they were burning nowjust as bright and warm as Tōjō and the emperor had dreamed, I imagined. If they had feared and hated America as neighbor, they could hate him nowas sovereign. But the time for fear was over. What more could an American president take than the emperor had surrendered to pride?

From the east, towards the medical center, came a lone woman’s cry. A chorus of moans suffused the middle distance. Nothing moved around me but fire and falling debris. The ball field by the river would be open land. Somewhere to the east, I’d find survivors. Somewhere in coming days, I‘d meet new masters.

Id survived the war. I damn sure wasn’t going to choke on peace. My boot crunched through what had been a centuries-old temple. I bowed toward the bay– toward the twilight gray of the sea, and recalled the English we had once amused ourselves by learning from the wireless.

Welcome to Japan, most honorable sir. Would you please to buy some smokes?”

Better to deal with foreign devils than die for a disgraced god.

A Little Feature That Every Shower Needs

ShowerEvery shower needs a place to put the shampoo and soap, the razor and the washcloth, and various sundries. Usually, this is some built-in that’s hardly usable or a caddy hanging from the shower arm–right where it’s in the way. A few years ago, when they started selling the Scrubbing Bubbles “Automatic Shower Cleaner,” I decided to give it a try, and in so doing came up with a superior solution.

Houston has very hard water, which is to say, there is so much lime in the water, if you let the sprinklers hit the siding, the house will slowly turn gray as limestone forms on the brick. This cleaner, while not likely to meet up to it’s hype, seemed likely to help (and experience has born this out) but only if mounted where it will spray all the glass. Hanging it from the shower head wasn’t going to do the job. Instead, I found a simple ceramic robe hook and mounted it in the right location by drilling through the tile, then sealed around it with latex calk.  While I was at it, I mounted two more hooks (shown here), one to hold my washcloth up out of the way and the other to hold the show caddy. This puts the caddy over to one side where it doesn’t interfere with the show hose and doesn’t get in the way.

I’ve had this installation for about six years now, and it’s been a neat solution. I really haven’t given it a second thought until the other day when I replaced the old rusted caddy with an adjustable stainless steel unit by Simply Human. I hung the new caddy, tried it out, and was left wondering  why every shower isn’t made this way.

Now yours can be too. All you need is an all ceramic robe hook (the metal mounting bracket will be sealed behind the calk, and a $2 masonry bit.


Dinosaur’s Toes


Wow, this brings back memories. In the late ’60s, my family did a lot of rock hounding in the South Dakota back country. Once, we stopped for lunch at a spot overlooking a gulch somewhat wider that this one. My sister thought the eroded tallus looked like the toes of some giant creature, and forevermore, the badlands were the “dinosaur’s toes”.

For more photos of the badlands, check out The Constant Rambler, at

“Callista’s Delight” to Appear in ASIM

ImageMy short story, “Callista’s Delight”, will be published in the January issue of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.

“Callista’s Delight” is about a woman who takes her little girl out under the stars to witness the greatest triumph in the history of human engineering–or the moment she looses her daddy. It earned an honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest and was long listed for Britain’s James White award. Despite that, ASIM had it reviewed by its science advisor, so you know it’s full of SciFi goodness.

You won’t want to miss it, so subscribe to ASIM now. Andromeda Spaceways, they’ll get you there–eventually.

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