In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


Business Cards for the New Age

With my Writer’s of The Future win, I’ll be going to Los Angeles in a few months and there’s no telling who I may meet at the workshop. It’s therefore a logical time to order the new business cards I’ve been putting off. But what is a business card in this day and age? When I meet someone new, it still makes sense to hand them a card with my contact information and a little space to jot a note. Sure, why not? But no one is going to file that card away like in days of yore–I certainly wouldn’t. And no one needs the info bloat that has become common today, what with websites and screen names and sometimes icons jockeying for real estate. No, I only need the card to do a couple of things, but I need those things done well–and one of them is giving my new found acquaintance machine readable contact information.

What then, are my new design requirements for my new business card?

To list basic contact information, phone, address, email, and linked-in profile.
To contain a vCard, encoded as a QR code for easy smart phone scanning.
To highlight my web presence and brand.
To be free of clutter and professional in tone.
To have a sleek design by a professional graphic artist.
To be free of the cost of a professional graphic artist.

Okay, so my first stop was to visit and create my quick response codes. I created one encoding my basic contact info as a VCard and another encoding the URL to a landing page under my top level website,  It’s important to put as little data as possible in a QR code because the more data you cram in, the smaller the picture elements and the harder it is to decode. We do NOT want our new business contacts futzing around with balky QR codes! So the VCard is minimal, and the link is to a landing page that may contain more information along with anything that changes or that I decide to add later.

ImageNext stop was Moo, a well-regarded printer with a robust online card designer featuring lots of stock, graphic artist-designed templates to choose from. After sorting through this for a few interminable forevers, I found a design I liked. It did not allow me to put the QR codes where I originally planned, but it did allow me to upload a graphic for the back of the card. So with a little editing in Pixlr, that was easily sorted.

The final design, I think, is spot on. It’s clean. It’s clear. It highlights brand and essential contact info. On the reverse, the QR code for the landing page has a little icon to make clear that it’s a website (such icons are a free feature of QR Monkey, but y themake the code more complex so I elected not to add one to the vCard).

If you’d like to try out Moo yourself, follow this link and you’ll get a small discount if you decide to order:

So that’s that. And now, I think, it’s off to work I go.

The Saturn V Main Engine Returns!

Check out this very cool article about how laser 3D scanning and 3D printing are being used to fully understand, resurrect, and improve upon the giant engines that carried us to the moon. Cool factoid: The fuel pump for the F1 engine consumed 55,000 shaft HP, more than the main propulsion system for a modern ultra-deep-water drillship.

Writers of the Future Win!


I’m an L. Ron Hubbard, Writers of the Future winner!

I don’t normally get too excited about awards. Writing is a long-haul proposition, and the payoff comes from years of slogging away more than from any one event.

But this is a big deal, the big enchilada, the American Idol of Scifi. This is the best known, most highly-respected award for genre short fiction, and one of very few opportunities for beginning authors to garner national exposure. Moreover, it means I’ll be flying to Los Angeles for a week-long workshop with some of today’s best authors.

I’m now an alumni in the company of Stephen Baxter, James Alan Gardner, Dean Wesley Smith, Dave Wolverton, Nancy Farmer, and David Zindell, to name a few. There’s no way I’m not getting excited about this!.

I will have to find my bow-tie, thought, but that’s okay. Bow-ties are cool.

WOTF Press Release

Last night, I was notified that I’m a finalist in the 4th quarter L Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest.

WOTF Press Release

I don’t generally get too exited about these things. Writers face rejection at every turn, and every win or sale is tempered by a closet of “other shoes” waiting to fall. The trick is not to let them fall on your dreams, to persevere, to improve, and to finally develop confidence in your own estimation of your work.

But I have to admit, this is a big deal. WOTF is hands down, the biggest and most respected contest of it’s kind anywhere in the world, and what makes it better is that it’s judged by professional authors–by those who love the craft and genre.

Being a finalist means I made it into the top eight. The contest does not disclose the number of entries, but if they only get a paltry 80 entries a week (most unlikely) that puts me well above the 99th percentile. In any human undertaking, that’s a pretty strong showing.

The winners are to be announced within the week. I’m not going to worry too much about it, though. Certainly, it is true, that it’s an honor to to have made it this far.


I just got the word that I’m a finalist in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest! I earned an honorable mention a year ago and the certificate is propped on my desk for encouragement. Thousands enter WOTF each quarter, and to be named a finalist is a huge honor and reward for many years of work and study. I understand that the winner will be announced within the week, so fingers crossed!

Vanguard Of Human Vision

ImageThe oldest still-orbiting man-made object is Vanguard I. The first solar-powered satellite, it was launched in the wake of Sputnik to study orbital conditions. It continued to broadcast for seven years and still remains in a shallow elliptical orbit that barely dips near the rarefied upper atmosphere. Originally projected to remain aloft for two thousand years, it has since been determined that friction from the solar wind and other environmental factors will bring it down by around 2,198 if it doesn’t collide with something before then.

This of course brings up the specter of orbital trash that now blankets our world, but it’s also a testament to our achievement as a species. Petty as we are, it’s easy to let our conquests and vices define us, and it’s unsurprising that so many seek comfort in a metaphysical eden beyond the reach of our squabbles and pollution. But if we fall short of the civilized ideals we imagine to move the heavens, we can at least take pride in this: our race, and ours alone, has aspired to the ideal.

Of all the millions of species that have inhabited the good earth, only we have sent emissaries hurtling through the universe for no other reason than to understand it. Whatever comes, our legacy now is assured. Should we perish tomorrow and send each other to a hell of our own making, machines with names like Pioneer, Voyager, and Sojourner will remain, forever proclaiming the best of what we are, and by the very evidence of their existence, the message left close by to our first steps on another world: “WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.

What are you thankful for?

When we first moved to Houston, my daughters were still tykes. As we sat around the table in our new kitchen, I asked what they were thankful for. The eldest gave the expected answer to make any parent proud: her family and friends and her brand new school (which really was a new school–not just new to her).

My youngest looked up, and with an earnest gleam in her eye, said, “I’m thankful for bugs!”

This year, I’m thankful for family and heath and for friendships new and old. I’m thankful for the scientific foundation behind our modern understanding of the world–an understanding that gives us greater responsibility, but far greater opportunity than ever before. And yes, creepy though they may be, for their integral role in our little world, I’m thankful for bugs too.

What are you thankful for?

When is Enterprise Free?

It is a currently fashionable political truism that government is always less efficient and more prone to corruption than the free market and that the “military industrial complex” is the least efficient and most corrupt of all government domains. The truth is somewhat more nuanced.

Consider the story of the X-1, the experimental rocketplane in which Chuck Yeager BellX1Flightbroke the sound barrier in 1947. During World War II, it became obvious that high speed flight posed fundamentally new challenges that directly threatened the advancement of American commercial and military aircraft design. NACA, (forerunner of NASA) a civilian government agency created to promote and advance American aeronautical development, had joined forces with the Army Air Forces Materiel Command to study a variety of aeronautical engineering problems of urgent importance to the war effort. In 1941, NACA researcher John Stack recommended building an oversrength, over-powered research aircraft for exploring flight in the unstable zone near the speed of sound. Eventually, the brass agreed, and in 1943, Bell and McDonald were invited to submit proposals (under a limited bidder program that led to much graft during the war).

Here, NACA started to part ways with the Army. NACA wanted a subsonic, jet-powered aircraft that could take off from the ground. The Army wanted a rocketplane designed to break the sound barrier. In the end, Bell was given the contract to build three experimental rocket planes, but by the time they were ready, the Army had decided to adopt the air-launch technique proposed by McDonald. Testing began in Florida, but the Army grew impatient with NACA’s conservative test schedule and with the hefty bonuses demanded by it’s civilian pilots.

With the cold war looming, the Army ordered the program moved to Muroc Army Air Field and its dry lake bed. Army test pilot Chuck Yeager was picked to fly the X-1 because he was responsible and a superlative pilot, but also because as a military flyer, he was used to taking justified risks for Army pay. Yeager’s broken ribs have become legend, and it likely came as no surprise to his superiors that he would pull such a stunt—or that he would not have, had it jeopardized the mission.

Yeager and his test engineer cooked up the idea of using the X-1’s electrically adjustable vertical stabilizer to maintain control near the speed of sound. It later turned out that George Welch, a civilian pilot working for North American Aviation, had done the same thing a week earlier during a test dive in the F-86 Sabre, but neither North American nor Bell had come up with this innovation. They both were copying features of the German ME-262 rocket fighter, courtesy of military intelligence.

So, in the end, American post war air supremacy derived neither from free market inventiveness nor from government bureaucracy, but from the wartime lessons of a vanquished enemy. The ME-262 was the product of a large military development effort commenced before the war, but ironically, the thin wings that helped make it the speed demon of the war were not entirely German. Luftwaffe engineers stumbled onto the swept wing in an attempt to balance out a heavier than expected engine, but their airfoil cross sections had been developed in America by NACA in the 1930s.

Incidentally, if you are interested in muscle cars, you have seen another innovation of the NACA/AAFMC collaboration from which American business has profited lo these 70 years: the NACA duct. This recessed, Hershey’s Kiss-shaped duct was developed to draw cooling air through the skin of an aircraft without disrupting laminar flow and increasing drag. Because it was developed by the government, hot rodders from the ’50s on have been free to use it to feed their turbo chargers and blowers without paying any license to anyone.

Power, as George Orwell warns us, may corrupt, but it matters little whether the hands that wield it steer government or company cars. Neither it seems, does this dictate to the extent some imagine, the productivity of the human mind.

Still Kicking

Okay, okay, I admit it. I overdid the treadmill a tad and ended up with what seems to be a relatively minor sprain that requires something approaching infinite time to heal. Or maybe it just feels that way.

But no matter. I’ll be back in ship shape soon enough, and in the meantime, I’ve finished what I think is a rather smashing new short story, but that’s not what I want to tell you about today. This is, because it’s so very awesome:

A (presumably waifish) young lady slipped on a Japanese train platform and became wedged in the narrow gap between the train and the platform. A station official warned the conductor not to depart and called over the PA, asking everyone to push on the 35-ton train car. They pushed hard enough to shift the car on its shocks, widening the gap enough for the woman to be pulled to safety. Why do I find this so wonderful? I don’t know. Perhaps because because in the aftermath, this “collective superman” gave itself a round of applause.