In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


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.

Upgraded Treadmill Desk

Treadmill desk made with $600 treadmill, $150 Ergotron LCD arm, and $30 worth of wire shelving. Prominently featured is my coffee mug from the Atomic Testing Museum.

Upgraded treadmill desk with coffee mug from the Atomic Testing Museum.

My treadmill desk has been such a success, I decided it was time for an upgrade. I put my little netbook spare back into mothballs and bought a Dell Inspirion 2020 all-in-one desktop ($400 at Best Buy). I outfitted this with a wireless mouse, a Microsoft Arc ergonomic keyboard, and a Logictech touchpad T650.

Then the fun began.

My improvised wire rack desk has worked well, but I knew it couldn’t stand up to the additional weight (It did, barely, but with a slightly scary wobble). So I ordered an Ergotron LX desk mount LCD arm. This is a well-made monitor arm, but left me with two problems: 1) how to mount it to my treadmill, and 2) how to mount my non-VESA monitor to it.

The Ergotron arm is designed to mount to a desk, either by clamping to the edge or bolting through a hole. The mounting hardware is extremely well made and could easily have been adapted to bolt onto one arm of the treadmill, but this would have eaten up four inches of usable space.

Instead, I needed to mount the arm’s riser to the treadmill’s handle grip, really a steel crossbar that stiffens the frame and has no other function but to hold two palm grip pulse sensors that I never use.

Rota-Lock perpendicular clamp.

Rota-Lock perpendicular clamp.

Rota-Lock makes a clever, $15 pipe clamp used to form perpendicular joints in scaffolding and light bar rigging for theatrical work. A continuous loop of heavy steel rod is bent and bent again to form perpendicularly opposing saddles. A forged seat rests between the pipes to be joined and is cranked down with a locking bolt until it forces the pipes apart–firmly locking them between its own recesses and the outer saddle. Because the 35mm riser and the treadmill handle are both a bit smaller than the smallest Rota-Lock is designed for, I left the plastic palm sensor in place and fit the riser with the rubber sleeve from a $3 plumbing pipe repair clamp. I also replaced the clamp’s locking bolt with a slightly longer one from the hardware store, just to give it a little more travel.

Pictured here (right), the black, Ergotron riser stands vertically in front of the horizontal treadmill grip. The locking bolt is on the left and can just be seen digging through the plastic of the handle sensor. This installation is not good for the 1,800 pound foot rating of the clamp, but should have more than adequate safety margins for my 20 pound computer. Anyway, it seems rock solid. Edit: Clamp has remained rock solid for over 3 years, with one removal and reinstallation for treadmill maintenance.

VESA Plate modified to fit Dell Inspirion mount.

VESA Plate modified to fit Dell Inspirion mount.

At the other end of the arm, problem #2 was easily solved. The Dell computer stand bolts on with an odd but heavy-duty steel plate that clips in such that the weight of the monitor tends to lock it in place. The Ergotron arm is pre-drilled to fit a standard VESA mount–that is, four bolts at the corners of either a 75mm or 100mm square. The VESA plate is sturdy enough, I simply drilled new holes to accommodate machine screws passing through the VESA plate (shown), through the Dell mounting plate (click to enlarge) and into the computer. Slightly longer metric machine screws (shown in top two holes) ensure that the mount will hold. Edit: Mount has remained trouble-free for over three years.

This only left me with the work surface to settle. The open wire shelving has its advantages, but it really isn’t a very good work surface. While testing out the new system, I found a handy scrap of 1/4″ plywood just the right width to fit the wire shelving. This was actually left over packaging from the treadmill, but was perfect for completing my desktop. The table saw cut it to length and nibbled away the recesses needed for the upper shelf to lock into the base shelf. A little sandpaper and spray varnish and voila!

Click to enlarge work surface detail

Work Surface

Click to enlarge Ergotron arm detail

Work Surface

Finished Treadmill Desk

Finished Treadmill Desk

The result is strong and sturdy and doesn’t shake at all. I can type at a comfortable level, swap out the keyboard for a laptop if needed, and even keep my coffee within reach. What’s not to love? So far, using this treadmill desk a few hours a week and using MyFitnessPal to track my calories, I’ve lost nearly 50 pounds.

Operation Black Hills Cabin

Lots of places give discounts to veterans as a way of saying thanks for their service. One couple in South Dakota aims to give something more–a free vacation.

Many of my earliest memories are of South Dakota’s Black Hills. It’s a special, privileged feeling to stand among those creaking pines, look out over the prairie, and ponder a fossil trilobite plucked from the hillside. It’s a land of ancient peoples and modern marvels, gold-flecked stream beds and campfires sending embers to meet the sparkling gems of the unobscured Milky Way.

Now, Jeff and Pat Baird of Custer have spearheaded a project to share all that with a few of our nation’s heroes. With the help of retired Air Force colonel Marty Mahrt, retired airline pilot Richard Geeting and hotel manager Ione Fejfar, they’ve secured enough donations to buy and furnish a 1,200 square foot cabin for use by veterans wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan and their families, to complement contributions from various area rentals and businesses.

Qualified veterans receive a free week’s vacation in the cabin or another in the Custer area, along with meals and admission to the many nearby family attractions in the Black Hills.

Operation Black Hills Cabin is a great concept and deserves our support. It can also serve as an inspiration to those who are in a position to copy the idea in other parts of the country.

For more information, check them out on FaceBook at

Be Awesome

Some of you may not give a flamingo’s slippers about this, so I’ll keep it short.

As regular followers know, I bought a treadmill over the Christmas break, assembled a treadmill desk, and started using it and MyFitnessPal as part of my normal writing routine the second week of January.

I try to walk at least an hour a day, probably average a little over two, and occasionally up to eight. I never exceed 2.2 MPH with a 2% incline. I eat what I like, but hold myself to the daily net calorie targets set by MyFitnessPal. In practice, this means almost no bread, pasta, or rice, and generally pretty healthy eating. I’m not starving myself or suffering in any way. I do drink a lot of decaf, and I count the calories in the creamer and artificial sweetener.

After slowly losing ground for twenty years, I’ve lost 44 lbs in six months. My cholesterol is down 20%. My BP is down 20%. I am now about 15 pounds from the recommended ideal weight for my height–even without accounting for age. I see no problem with reaching that target and maintaining it indefinitely.

It ain’t easy, but it ain’t complicated, either. Just sayin’.

Dig In

I bought a pair of those silly, er, trendy toe shoes that have been popping up everywhere. Why would I do that, you ask? Well, not to jump on the minimalist footwear bandwagon, that’s for sure. Humanity may have survived shoe-less until the last few centuries, but they did it with lots of broken toes, mutilated nails, and parasite-infected barking dogs. No, I did it because I’ve lost 44 pounds in five months by walking between two and six hours every day, and there simply is no footwear up to the abuse.

I’ve worn hiking shoes, walking shoes, pool shoes, good leather sandals, two kinds of boots and a pair of steel-toed anti-static sneakers. All have their place, but most of these have the side effect of crowding the toes together. This fosters the further side effect of asymmetrical callouses that eventually become hard and get pinched and generally become noisome.

The toe shoe, a shoe in which each (or at least most) of the toes gets its own little pocket, is a rather obvious solution to this particular problem. Fortunately, I live in an age in which most obvious solutions (and many, many far from obvious ones) are for sale within walking distance of my home—at least in principal.

So I bought a pair of Fila Bay-Run-Some-Damn-Thing-Or-Others and here’s what I think. They work. That is, they solve the problem without immediately presenting any intractable new ones. They do cause my stride to wobble and my knees to hurt a bit, but I’m provisionally okay with that because that just means they are bringing into play fine motor skills and muscles that have spent too much of the last two decades sleeping while hard leather uppers and synthetic soles went “clomp clomp clomp” along life’s byways. That’s fine. That means, if anything, that I’ll be burning more calories. Aside from that, they stink. Well, they smell a little.

Unfortunately, the impetus for this product is not good solid practical Americans like me, it’s the aforementioned fad. As a result, few toe shoes come with any sort of arch support or sole, and many take a positively narcissistic pride in the omission. In fairness, Fila makes a better shoe called the “Voltage” which has characteristics more suitable to humans living in the modern world, but the local store only carries these things—suitable only for the beach or for the lighter heft of Martian gravity. Well, perhaps I’ll order something from Amazon.

In the meantime, to those who think anti-shoism is a sensible idea, I say this. The whole idea of minimal shoe running arose from a spate of African bare-footed masters who emerged in recent decades and went on to Olympic fame. Despite their successes, the rest of the running world has not followed suit. Why? Because careful scientific analysis has revealed what most knew and some suspected. First, hard use without proper support destroys human feet. Second, Kenyans dominate the track for the same reason minorities dominate American sport: from the time they are small, that’s the only path they see out of poverty.

But, like the rest of my paw wrappers, these have their place, and so I march off into the dream-studded twilight of modern consumerism. At least when these puppies go to the beach, they offer a somewhat less painful alternative to Edward Abbey’s advice to “unzip your fly, piss hearty, dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood!, why not?”

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