In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…



I’m left handed. This is not a choice.

Like many lefties, I am actually mixed-dominant, which means that I bat and eat with the left, but fast-pitch and shoot with my right. These are not choices. Although I can train myself to perform adequately with the wrong hand, it requires constant, exhausting effort. Unlike you strong dominants, I have had to stop for a moment before beginning each and every manual task I have ever learned and ask myself “okay, which side does this?”

For a long time, lefties were tormented, forced to write with the wrong hand, even killed by people who saw us as an abomination. I watched my naturally left-handed friends at school trying to write with their right hands hooked into an unnatural position. My mother’s teachers would smack the left hand with a ruler until the child was forced to relent. However well intentioned, this was abusive; in fact, it was torture.

I live in a world in which certain people think that certain other people have chosen a sinful path simply for seeing the world as they see it. They tell themselves that these sinners could walk the righteous path if only they would accept the will of God. I have no dog in this fight, but it occurs to me that when a man says a lifestyle is a choice, he must see it as so. I wouldn’t know about that, for I could no more choose to be gay than I can choose not to perceive the bands of the rainbow. But wherever you fall on the spectrum, ask yourself for a moment, what if the leader of some foreign church declared that you could be gay if only you accepted the loving will of his God into your heart. Imagine if you lived in fear that your tricolor vision would be discovered, and the ignorant color-blind bastards around you, convinced of your demon wickedness, would deny you employment, human dignity, even life? Imagine if you feared having a left handed child, lest he be denied opportunity.

If God made me at all, he made me left handed. If he made you, he made you with your sexual orientation. If this is so, then HOW DARE YOU PRESUME TO PLACE YOUR VIEWS ABOVE THE WORKS OF GOD? How dare anyone rationalize the ignorant notions of iron age men into the justification for prejudice and discrimination in the name of God? We ate from the tree of knowledge and knew shame for our nakedness. Now, as we pick apart the very tree of life, we should understand the shame of ignorance, and that we will never again see the garden unless we build it ourselves, together.



I saw a double rainbow, as clear and bright and round against the white and pastel clouds, as ever graced a kindergarten wall. The thunderstorm had swept through town and left the buildings swaying till the workers checked their stomaches and went fleeing down to the street. The trees outside were laying helpless on their sides, the buses were late, and everyone was calling after their homes and their gardens and their plans for the evening. Traffic was snarled across three counties, but we know the back roads and byways, and were only a few minutes late. The eldest daughter sang and played, but the rain was fierce and the sky threatening, so we headed for home.

I looked for the rainbow before it formed. As I waited at the signal, the rain had stopped and the wet springtime foliage glowed in sunlight suddenly steaming past the car. I saw color behind the traffic light, but only the pink hint of sunset. Then I looked again and there it was, stretching from horizon to horizon, solid and gleaming with color like a portal to another world. To the south and north, the legs of a second, fainter rainbow stood outside the first.

A rainbow is one of the most magnificent wonders of nature, but it is not magic. Because I know how they are produced, I have often pointed them out to others as our bus turns onto the last ramp and we can look back to the east at the end of our daily ride. And because I know, I look for the second, inverted rainbow where I know it must be, and sometimes see it emerging in front of the blue and purple clouds. Today’s display was spectacular, and would have been no less so to an ancient traveler who might have chalked it up to spirits, but when the clouds shifted and the sun slipped away, the rainbow was gone, and I was left at its end with the same treasure I had brought to its beginning, knowledge.

Customer Service: Key to Conservation

This article was published in the Region IV newsletter of the National Association of Interpreters, then picked up by the west coast region. “Interpreters”, in this context, refers to park naturalists and museum curators. Edward Abbey was one of the most famous of all such interpreters and is well-known for his book “Desert Solitaire” about his time as a ranger at Arches National Monument.


I am not a naturalist but I married one. My training is in management, but because I often join my wife when she travels on business, I enjoy unique opportunities to observe various presentational styles, activities, and programs from a perspective that lies somewhere between that of interpreter and visitor.

I recently had the chance to visit a park in Arkansas at which my wife was assisting in a program for boy scouts. As she had a busy schedule during the day, I availed myself of the opportunity to take a solo morning hike through the hills and beaver dams near the park and returned deeply entrenched in the role of observer. I spent the rest of the day visiting the various stations and observing interpretive programs by people of disparate backgrounds but similar passions. After dinner and the last of the orienteers recovered, we circled the picnic tables for the traditional bonfire and story telling. The park’s chief interpreter, who had just finished an exhausting day as policeman, coordinator, and teacher, rose and called the gathering to order. After introductory remarks, announcements, and jokes, he was prodded into telling The Story of the Purple Gorilla.

You are probably familiar with this tale, as were your grandparents and theirs before them. Some of the boys might not have heard it told, but we adults certainly had. Yet, this particular interpreter was not content merely to tell a story. He performed it; pacing about, modulating his voice, inflecting, gesticulating wildly, and weaving doors, cellars, airplanes and apes out of the very smoke and darkness around us.

Exhausted at last, the man yielded his stage to the riotous laughter of the scouts, who were then to exchange their own stories in competition. Since I had no other official duties this weekend, I ws drafted as one of the judges and watched as the first competitor drew near the fire, clearly enlightened and perhaps a bit intimidated by the performance he had just seen. He told another venerable story, probably the only one he knew, but he told it with all the soul and creativity of a young mind just awakened to new possibilities. He sold it, and in the end he left the park with top honors (a book of stories for future nights of revelry) and, I think, a little more self-esteem and a truer appreciation for the whole scouting experience. When, in twenty years time, he is telling those stories to his own troop in the same park, it may well be because one tired man wove apparitions out of thin air when he really would rather have been safely in bed.

Management consultant and author Tom Peters once pointed out a difference in attitude between contract and full-time employees which, I believe, makes my point well. The contract worker, he said, cannot afford to merely meet the stated needs of his employer. More than just doing his job, he must ensure that his efforts are noted so that he is invited back to work another day. He must market himself to those who write the checks.

This is very important. It is easy for a naturalist or curator to fall prey to the illusion that his lot in life is to preserve the wilderness, study God’s creature, protect ancient artifacts, and generally pursue loftier aspirations than merely entertaining the tourists. The truth is, though, that wherever you are, whatever you have lined out for this week’s programs — however important the studies and work that your visitors never see or appreciate — you are, first and foremost, paid to meet the needs of other human beings. How well you meet those needs not only determines how long you may expect to be paid, but how well the underlying resources you value will be preserved as well. Though Edward Abbey might not have liked to think about it, he could not have lived in the wilderness without the tourists, and as destructive and mindless as development can be, human beings are the dominant force on this planet for better or worse. As Jim Fowler said while speaking at my wife’s park, “wild animals will only survive if they are worth money”. If people aren’t hiking the wilderness, they’ll be building on top of it.

No one would like to retire to the wilds for a life of academic solitude more than I, but the reality is that naturalists have a responsibility that goes beyond greeting visitors and clearing trails. Through interpretation, creative marketing, and a business-minded outlook, MAI members hold the key to imbuing future generations with a love of nature and the dedication to save it. As humanity moves further from its organic roots and more children grow up in cyberspace, getting them into out parks and museums in increasingly important to showing them the value of the things and places we work so hard to preserve.

The key to preserving the resources we love lies in learning to manage and market them as a business. If we can study natural resource management, we can study marketing and business management. Only with marketing and service excellence sufficient to keep the voters coming back to stoke the campfires, can we keep the funds flowing and the resources protected. It is a balancing act to be sure, for with the money comes garbage, noise, and stress, but the alternative is unacceptable. Neither governments nor corporate sponsors exist to preserve our wild places, and when public interest is gone, so will the places themselves fade away as even the best tales do, when spoken into an empty darkness.

The Tale of Apollo 13


The Apollo 13 mission became perhaps the greatest real-life drama of the technical age when an oxygen tank exploded after the tiny ship was already half-way to the moon. In one brief moment, a billion dollar triumph of engineering and technology was transformed into a desperate struggle to bring three brave explorers back safely from the brink of doom. With the primary oxygen supply lost, the command Module’s fuel cells could not produce power, so it had to be quickly shut down to conserve its batteries. Without them, it would not be able to separate from the massive service module, fire its retro rockets, or maintain a survivable trajectory during reentry.

In the days that followed, three men would huddle in a tiny, half-frozen lunar module built for two, while engineers and technicians, not just here in Houston but in factories and facilities throughout the county, struggled to squeeze enough oxygen and electricity out of the beleaguered ship to bring them back home. NASA’s handling of this emergency is truly one of the great triumphs of engineering and management, but the events that led up to the crisis are an abject warning, of how the most mundane human failings can undermine even the best laid plans.

The explosion was caused by a damaged heater coil in the number two oxygen tank. This tank was more than just a metal can. It was a complex and fairly delicate cryogenics system that had to maintain oxygen in a semi-frozen state in which gaseous oxygen was always available at an acceptable pressure, and it had to be able to do this on the ground, in space, in zero gravity, and under the pounding of lift-off. This required a number of internal components, including a heater (to keep pressure up), a mixer (to keep the slushy oxygen flowing) and a thermostatic switch—a safety switch to keep the tank from overheating.

The Apollo spacecraft electrical system was designed to run on 28 volts, the voltage supplied by the fuel cells. The generators on the launch pad, however, produced 65 volts, and the spacecraft would have to run on this voltage during the weeks of tests leading up to the launch. This was not a problem for most components, but North American, the prime contractor, became concerned and ordered its subcontractor (Beech) to redesign the heater element inside the tank. Beech did so, but somehow overlooked the thermostatic safety switch. This omission, by itself, would almost certainly have causes no problems.

The tank that ultimately ruptured on Apollo 13 was originally installed in Apollo 10 but because a number of improvements had been made to the tank design, it was removed so that it could be upgraded and used on a later flight. During removal, a bolt had not been properly removed, caught, and caused the tank to fall a short distance back into its cradle. The jolt was slight, and the tank was inspected and found to be undamaged, so it was sent off for upgrade. This accident, alone, was no cause for concern.

Two years later, the upgraded tank was part of Apollo 13 as it sat atop the massive, fuming Saturn V booster for a critical test. In this test, the rocket, crew, and ground staff were all readied for launch, right up to the point of ignition. As part of the test, the oxygen tanks were filled with liquid oxygen just as they would be on launch day. The test was completed successfully, but trouble occurred as service technicians worked to shut down the spacecraft afterwards. All of the cryogenic systems had to be purged prior to shut down, and this was accomplished for each tank by pumping warm gas in one valve and forcing the refrigerated liquid out through another. On this day, oxygen tank number two became balky, releasing less than 30 of its 320 pounds of oxygen.

Engineers examined the design and the manufacturing history of the tank. They concluded that a vent tube had been bent slightly when the unit was dropped two years previously. Because of the misalignment, the purge gas was going in one valve and out the other instead of pushing the frozen slush out through the vent tube. This should have raised the alarm, but the vent tube would not be used in flight, it was only used on the ground, so they ignored the fact that a critical component of a precisely engineered system on which billions of dollars and human lives depended, was not working as designed.

Instead, they decided to turn on the heater inside the tank, and just let it boil off the frozen oxygen. This would take several hours, and was far outside the operational design of the heater, but the engineers saw no problem with the procedure. They knew that the safety switch would keep the tank from overheating. They also knew that a technician monitoring the tank could keep an eye on the temperature. What they didn’t know was that the safety switch had never been upgraded, and fused shut the instant the 65 volt test current started flowing through its 28 volt contacts. So as the heater ran in the super insulated tank, the oxygen boiled off and the temperature started to rise. The technician monitoring the tank saw the temperature stabilize at eighty degrees, because the sensor inside the tank was only designed to measure up to the maximum temperature expected to be encountered—eighty degrees. In fact, the temperature rose hour after hour to nearly one thousand degrees, and burned most of the Teflon insulation off the wiring inside the tank.

Weeks later and 200,000 miles from Earth, one of those wires sparked during a stir of the tank, igniting the remaining insulation and blowing off the neck of the tank. Exposed to the vacuum of space, the 300 pounds of Oxygen slush flashed into gas and blew out part of the service module, ripping apart the plumbing and wiring of the other tank, and crippling the spacecraft. It might have been far worse. Had the tank ruptured on the ground, the oxygen might have had time to burn what fuel was around it. The astronauts might have been killed before they ever left the pad.

So, what lessons does this twisted chain of events have for the rest of us? Apollo was built in “encapsulated” modules. It was well engineered. It was thoroughly tested. It had backups and fail-safes and redundant components. And yet it failed. It failed because human beings made predictable mistakes, indeed, mistakes that a mammoth bureaucracy was specifically set up to prevent. Jim Lovell, in his book “Lost Moon” recounted that at the time of the countdown demonstration test, he had asked the engineers how long it would take to pull the rack containing the balky tank. In retrospect, this was clearly the right thing to do. But of course, in the real world, we all make trade-offs all the time. Replacing the tank might have cost the launch window. But weighed against this tangible risk, was the unknowable risk that not replacing it could cost the mission–and lives.

I am not criticizing Jim Lovell, or NASA or engineers at North American or Beech Aircraft. I am merely pointing out something about human nature. We see what we want to see, but we have the mental capacity to defeat our imposed delusions – this is what the scientific method was created for. Fundamentally, Apollo 13 failed because NASA did not recognize that when an oxygen tank is in any way not operating to spec. this is a problem to be respected. Years later, different NASA engineers ignored the fact that solid rocket booster seals were not operating as designed, and as a result, the Space Shuttle Challenger blew itself into a billion pieces on national television. Another decade passed, and engineers ignored the fact that external tank insulation was not performing as designed, and my four and six year old daughters spent a morning searching the roadsides or north west Louisiana for pieces of another Shuttle.

We aren’t all trying to go to the moon. And I would not presume to judge any of these decisions where tax money and lives must be weighed in light of risks that just cannot be known. We all take risks all the time, whether running a red light, or voting with our party without researching their policy claims. Failure does not always lead to icy death or fiery cataclysm, but it can, over time, lead to unexpected consequences. The scientific method is how we test our assumptions and illusions. It got us to the moon and back. It can take us where faith never will.

SOPA and PIPA are Against EVERYONE’s Interests

Isn’t it “fair use” if I don’t sell it?

We often hear this claim made by those sturggling against what they see as legal tyranny by corporate media giants attempting to pray on the little guy. The answer is “No”, it’s still infringement — but can we really blame anyone for feeling this way?

There is a difference between what is legally practical and what is morally right. That’s exactly why industry keeps pushing for laws like SOPA and PIPA (and DCMA before it). They want to make it more practical to enforce their (legitimate) right to earn a return on their investment in time and talent. That’s fine, in theory. The problem is that any law that makes enforcement easy enough to stop individual acts of infringement CANNOT HELP but open the door to rampant abuse and coercive intrusion into the free market.

Let’s be clear on this: When an artist (or a media distribution company) says it is illegal even for one person to make one copy of a protected work for their own use with no redistribution, they are right. It IS illegal AND immoral for to copy other people’s work without paying their asking price, even for only your own use (except for parody, commentary etc.). It took effort and/or talent to create the work, and if you use it without paying, you are a cheat.

However. The reality is, people have done so and are going to continue to do so, and to a great extent, that is just the cost of doing business in a free society. Attempts to lock down technology to make infringement impossible cannot succeed, because by succeeding, they would destroy the very free society that makes the production of IP economically valuable in the first place.

There is, of course, truth to the claim of materiality, that one person copying a few songs is not doing any MATERIAL harm. True. The challenge is that digital technology makes it so easy to copy that even casual, ostensibly benign infringement can erode a significant slice of the market. This is a legitimate problem, one that legitimately needs to be addressed. For my part, I think it could be better addressed through marketing and education than through legal machination.

The thing is, legal remedies to ubiquitous access always have unintended consequences. I know one fellow who acquired illegal copies of a whole slew of technical books because he needed to use them on an e-reader that did not support the digital lock placed on them by the publishers. He BOUGHT all these books, but in the process of hunting down copies he could actually use, he ran across a repository of hundreds of unsecured copies he had not previously known about. These turned out to be from a publisher who makes such books freely available to encourage people to turn to their newer releases for updates, but it also supported the very piracy sites that laws like PIPA are meant to destroy.

The reality is, no law can ever stop a free people from infringing occasionally upon one another, and society itself has mechanisms for keeping such infringement in check. Typically, people are much less likely to do what they see as being “wrong” or “uncool” according to their peer group, than what an outside aggressor prohibits by force.

By attempting to make all copying impossible, or so easily prosecutable that a police state results, the media conglomerates make insurgents of their own customers. How can that be good business?

Colonnade Win

I was just notified that my short story “Frame Zero” won 1st place in the Colonnade Writing Contest. Short stories are harder, in a way, than novels, because they require so much of the world to remain outside the narrative. This one was interesting because it all revolves around a boy at the crossroads of two different kinds of revolution, and his backstory, future, and familial relations are only hinted at. It was a lot of fun.

“Frame Zero”, is about a brilliant boy who learns that his father has been arrested after studying a signal from space that he thinks is a message from God. On the eave of a great religious war, the boy goes over his father’s notes and realizes the signal can only be from a spacecraft launched twelve thousand years ago from earth–from before the accepted creation.

Well if you already knew…

Stephen Covey once said “constructive criticism is the greatest gift one ca hope for”, and he was right. Participating in a critique group is a tricky enterprise. You want to be encouraging, but you want to give constructive criticism–that’s why we’re all here.

It is surprising, then, how frequently a writer will argue with the critique, and even more so, how frequently his argument breaks down — one way or another — to some version of “Yeah, I already knew that was a problem.”

I shouldn’t be surprised of course. This is the natural human desire to save face–even if only in our own eyes, and we ALL are guilty of it at one time or another.

Literary critique, fellow space travelers, should not be that time. You asked for my critique, I give it. I try very, very hard to be constructive (even if the POV shifts eight times in the first paragraph and you mis-spell your own main character’s name in the second) and the only response I need from you is “thanks.” It is, after all, only my opinion; you are free to disagree, or agree, or agree and ignore me anyway for reasons that satisfy only you. It’s your writing after all, and I will think no more or less of you for not writing what I would have written (in fact, I’d just as soon you didn’t!).

But please, please don’t agree with me and tell me “yeah, I knew that was a problem”, because from my end of the transaction, that translates as “yeah, I don’t mind wasting other people’s time and effort.”


A Bolt From Her Quiver

It is said that early experiments in electromagnetism were inspired by hikes in the Austrian countryside, where rough terrain made the magnetic compass indispensable, and where sudden thundershowers are common. Soon it was noticed that when lightning flashed nearby, the compass needle would jump, which led naturally the experiments that changed our world forever.

I once had a similar experience. I was walking across the open campus of my university when the persistent mist that had besieged our weekend suddenly resolved into rain. The campus was large and sudden storms not uncommon, and though I had brought along my faithful umbrella, I could not take much pride in the provision as the electrical ferocity of the storm blossomed overhead. Within a minute, the afternoon glow still warming the dripping foliage around me was transformed by stroboscopic lashes from above. I hurried, but before I could reach the stairs leading down to the street and the safety of the nearest building, I felt a jolt through my hand and was shaken, bodily, by a massive concussion of palpable thunder.

“This is it,” I thought as the giant plate glass windows rattled in the nearby natatorium, “I have stepped into a charge leader and am about to be struck by lightning.”

As a dedicated geek, you see, I was well aware of research, recent at that time, of the stroke-counterstroke nature of the lightning strike–which begins with an invisible trace of airborne current snaking between the cloud and ground. I reckoned the metal rod of the umbrella had contacted such a current, conducting a high-voltage pulse through the plastic handle and into my hand.

“But,” I thought next, “I should already be dead.”

I knew, after all, that any conscious realization forms in the brain much more slowly than a lightning bolt. My heart raced ahead of my feet as I hurried under cover, but I soon realized my mistake. The bolt had never come near the ground. It, like all of the impressive discharges around me that afternoon, had been from one cloud to the next. What I had felt was but a tiny side current, an eddy, induced into the metal rod of the umbrella by the enormous MAGNETIC FIELD moving perpendicular to the bolt.

As far as I know, not a single bolt struck the ground that day, so it would be fatuous to say I was lucky to survive. I was lucky though, just a bit, to catch nature flexing her muscle.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I finally got around to watching the latest incarnation of this venerable franchise, and my take is “good in a way”.

Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I have long worshiped at the literary altar of Rod Serling, and that I see in his contributions to the original Planet of the Apes screenplay the keys to its longevity. His was a cold war theme, of course, and while religious extremism was the main evil confronting Taylor, it was cold war ideology that had wrought his hell on earth, and that led him to damn his fellow men “all to hell”.

This latest movie does one thing I like very much–it makes every major character act with virtue and character within his own little slice of the world–even the apes on rampage. No evil Dr. No here. No mad Dr Moreau. The trouble though, is that they pull it off too well.

Sure, the guys running the primate house are a tad petty, and the next door neighbor a bit of a jerk, and the head honcho at the lab a little too obsessed with making money and the researcher a little too worried about saving his dear old dad. In short, everyone is guilty of being human–appropriately enough given that they are about to be exterminated and replaced by apes who will have a little more of exactly the same defect.

So who’s the protagonist here? You watch this and find yourself rooting for the flight computer on the irrelevantly mentioned Mars shot. Perhaps it will come back, kill EVERYONE and make the world safe for visiting aliens—or perhaps the microbes who, duplicitous in the mayhem though they might be, are at least incapable of suffering over their own weaknesses.

So, it’s a good movie, well made and well written. And yet…
There is no one and nothing to root for. There is no real villain and no real protagonist. And sorry, that is not “highly evolved modern literature”, it’s cheap and shallow. Take a stand. Make the characters noble in their own eyes, but make someone right and someone wrong in MINE (even if it’s up to me to choose up sides), or their is no point in my attending the party.

Shifting Perspective

Much is made today about “head hopping”, the confusing tendency of some authors to hop omnisciently from one character’s perspective to another, even within the same scene. This is seldom, if ever, effective, but that doesn’t mean that perspective should never shift–even within a scene.

Often, I will begin a scene with sweeping omniscience, and then narrow down to one character’s head:

The taut gray fabric of the lift kite snapped and crackled in the sunlight, three turbines whirring below as they stole power from the wind and sent it down a ribbon to the approaching LCUI. Three kilometers below, Lieutenant Calvin McCaffrey stood at parade rest, boot heels buried in the white sand, hands clasped stiffly behind his back, and waited as the flat nose of the landing ship plowed through the lagoon directly towards him, one outrigger displacing sheets of water in defiance of the kite’s starboard tug.

High on a nearby ridge, Dylan wondered aloud what the hell the man was doing.

Why do I do this? Because it lets me set the scene in a very cinematic way. It creates in the mind a world larger than the characters, and then the sense of panning down into their lives. Here, I start by describing a wider scene, information that all the characters might know because they live in this world while we are only visiting. I then zoom in on a conversation, and in the following lines, I will zoom into one character’s head–and stay there until the end of the scene.

Think of it like the opening pan in cinematography.Used judiciously, it is a very effective tool, and like any tool, it can be used to craft or to butcher.