The Card Catalog

Knowing I’d be on a panel about Libraries of the Future at the Texas Library Association Conference in Dallas this Spring, I read up on libraries of the PAST, and found this book.  Yes, it tells about the evolution of the Card Catalog through history.  The book is richly illustrated with reproductions of cards from the Library of Congress catalog, which  they have NOT done away with.  Hand-written on the old cards are scraps of bibliographic information that never made it into on-line cataloging. Recommended!

“A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library. ” – Daniel Dennett, philosopher, writer, and professor (b. 28 Mar 1942), quoted in A Word A Day.

Snow City

Last month, I flew to Reno for the Soaring Society of America’s biennial convention, and was it ever a change from Houston.  Houston was already in an early (and flat)Texas Gulf Coast Spring.  Reno not so much:  surrounded by mountains etched against the sky in dry clear air, under tangles of lenticular clouds, Reno was winter-brown.

And then it snowed.  A lot.

That was a shock to the system for me and all the Southern Californians, Floridians, and attendees from the Southern Hemisphere.  Some had a tough drive or a delayed flight getting there.  But a good convention was had anyway – with old friends, interesting news, and an exhibit hall full of dream machines. (A non-soaring-pilot friend saw this picture and commented, “I didn’t know gliders are so BIG!”)

And Reno?  The sun came out.  The snow sublimated, melted, or stuck around in (relatively) harmless and picturesque places.

Travel is a cognate to the nowadays more ominous word travail.  The root meaning still works.  Travel is challenging even with cars and jets.  It’s debilitating, as any airline pilot can tell you.  Yet when you travel you meet people and places you wouldn’t at home, and you may see wonders. Or even unexpected reminders of home.

 

 

 

IMAGE

On January 20, 2018, an amateur astronomer by the name of Scott Tilley detected a signal he correctly deduced to have originated from NASA’s IMAGE satellite.  This satellite, launched in early 2000, had fallen silent almost six years later and given up for dead.

Interestingly, the mechanism for rebooting IMAGE involved passing through the shadow of a solar eclipse.  While an eclipse in 2007 didn’t do the trick, speculation is that the eclipse I watched from Wyoming last summer may have done so.   It’s nice to know the universe on occasion does make service calls!

IMAGE, the Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration, was intended to spend its two-year operational life imaging charged particles in the plasmasphere that surrounds the Earth, using several new techniques.  As such, it’s a tool to help us investigate the aurorae.  Thanks to IMAGE, you can watch a beautiful timelapse presentation of an aurora over the South Pole here .

While the science is important, our wonder at the exquisite and unexpected interactions between our planetary home and the rest of the universe is equally so.  A sense of wonder about creation and the very human beings dwelling on – or near! – this Earth is why I write the stories I do.

Compassion

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.
—Albert Einstein

PicSat Takes a Train to Orbit

Artist's conception of PicSat nanosatellite in Earth orbit
Artist’s conception of PicSat in orbit. Image courtesy PicSat.

A couple of days ago, PicSat rocketed into orbit on a mission that will last about a year, thus neatly spanning this new year 2018.

The mission will be to observe the transit of a gas giant exoplanet, Beta Pictoris b, as it passes between us and its sun.  The planet is new in at least two senses:  it was discovered in 2009, orbiting a star just 63 light-years from Earth, and it’s believed to have been formed quite recently.  In fact, its orbit is actually inside the cloud of dust and debris left over from the birth of the planet.

What makes this satellite special is its minuscule size and mass:  PicSat isn’t much larger than a baguette. This comparison is particularly apt, because PicSat was designed and assembled in Paris.  Here it is leaving Paris via the Gare du Nord, the Parisian train station dedicated to generally northbound departures.

Outside the station—taking the train to orbit!rain
Photo courtesy PicSat

If you’re wondering where in the picture the satellite is, it’s in that picnic cooler-size container being carried by PicSat team members Sylvestre Lacour and Maturin Grénot.

PicSat’s train ride to Holland was powered by an electric locomotive, by the way; electric locomotives were first introduced about a hundred and ten years ago—a nice illustration of the old and the new coexisting side by side.

PicSat’s size, mass, and a few other properties were  set by the CubeSat nanosatellite specifications which allow smaller packages to piggyback on launches of other, more complex and expensive payloads so long as they pose little or no risk of jeopardizing the host vehicle.  As an example of this philosophy, once in orbit the host vehicle deploys CubeSat packages by means of a simple spring launcher—like a child’s toy.  In a way, that’s precisely what they are:  CubeSat specifications were originally developed to enable graduate students to design and build their own satellites.

In railroad terms, this corresponds to a less-than-carload (“LCL”) shipment; while most people don’t know it, it’s still possible to ship small parcels in the baggage car on Amtrak trains today.

Here’s PicSat, proudly posing in front of four of its creators:

PicSat nanosatellite standing on table in front of four of the experiemnters who built it.
Photo courtesy PicSat

From left to right, these experimenters are Vincent Lapeyrere, Antoine Crouzier, Mathias Nowak, and Lester David.  Who says science can’t be fun? To learn more about the PicSat project, or help receive telemetered data from the satellite, visit picsat.obspm.fr  Continue reading PicSat Takes a Train to Orbit

Harvey Heroes

When Hurricane/Storm Harvey lashed and flooded Texas, a lot of heroes stepped up – everybody from first responders to the Cajun Navy, bringing over boats from Louisiana, to doctors who used the Nextdoor social media platform to say where they were for neighbors in need, and many more. A California veterinarian heard about the storm and immediately set out for Houston knowing there would be many lost and injured pets.

Today, perched on the brink of a new year with its own unforeseen challenges and disasters, we should acclaim another kind of Harvey hero.  These are the people who opened their doors to sodden family, neighbors and friends.  I heard about a single man in a well-elevated two-story house who checked on his elderly next-door neighbors, found them shivering in high water, and brought them into his home, where they stayed for weeks. A couple who are friends of mine took refuge with her parents (i.e., his inlaws) for two months while they got their house livable. A first-floor neighbor in my complex moved in with a dear friend for three months while her place was being rehabilitated.  A woman I know who has cats took in a colleague with more cats.  Fortunately, the cats figured out how to coexist!

A lady I met at a Christmas concert told me that she and her husband have had another couple, neighbors and longtime friends who need to raise their flooded house several feet higher, living with them since Harvey.  This nice lady told me she’s very much enjoying these unexpected housemates.  For one thing they moved their espresso-maker in with them and the quality of morning coffee has been superb.  For another and more important thing, the formerly empty nest (three kids off to school and adulthood) is now lively with friendly people.

I’m sure there have been households full of gritted teeth while overcrowded with incompatible relatives.  Still, they did the right thing. Meanwhile I suspect that in more households than we’ll ever know about, people found good fellowship, better neighbors than they knew they had, warmer family ties, or pleasure in not living alone. In a society that tends to atomize everybody, the terrible storm created some new and resilient social molecules. It had a silver lining.

The Once and Future White Christmas

A few mornings ago I looked out the window to see my balcony of mostly tropical plants shivering under a blanket of . . . snow. While December snow wouldn’t be a surprise elsewhere, here in Houston it was unusual enough to make headlines and a big splash on Facebook.

One morning three quarters of a century ago, songwriter Irving Berlin looked out the window and was as surprised as to see snow. He was staying in a cabin in Banning, California, not too far from where the Southern California wildfires are raging now. Inspired by the unexpected dusting, he wrote the song “White Christmas” at the very beginning of the fateful year 1940. (Berlin commonly wrote a song a day. How’s that for being a productive writer?)

Christmas-themed songs and liturgical settings have been around since at least as far back as the 4th Century when Christmas Day was fixed as the 25th day of December. But our modern Christmas carols don’t have a 4th-Century air. In fact, they evoke the 1940s. Why is this?

The music record business had taken a severe drubbing during the Depression but was rapidly recovering on the eve of the United States’ entry into World War II. From 1938 to 1941, record sales more than tripled as more and more workers found lucrative defense-related jobs. At the same time, here as in most developed nations, the power brokers had initially supported Hitler and Mussolini. (Both dictators were adamantly opposed to both trade unions and communism, the twin bugaboos of generations of businessmen.) When this stance abruptly became passé it became necessary to unify the American people so as to enable the economy to negotiate this sudden reversal. An appeal to nostalgia and a harkening back to a mythical national Golden Age was called for. In 1940 the cultural and population center of gravity of the United States was still located near New England, and “White Christmas” brilliantly celebrates the New England winter as few other songs before or since have done.

This isn’t to say that all Christmas carols were deliberately integrated into the war effort; but the newly written carols, the ones we still hear today when we’re out shopping in the mall, suited the new public mood almost perfectly—and so even today they’re fondly, if perhaps unconsciously, reminiscent of a time of national unity.

The carol that captures the wartime experiences of Americans better than all the rest is “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” recorded late in 1943, near the nadir of the campaign in the European theater. The lyrics were  from the point of view of a homesick GI who promises his family he’ll be home for Christmas, “if only in my dreams.” This song was at the time considered to be such an effective morale booster that thousands of discs were distributed all over the world by the US military (though, curiously enough, not by the British military establishment, which feared the same song could actually depress morale.)

The abrupt philosophical U-turn to enter the war and to oppose Fascism, the meteoric rise in music record sales, the suddenly booming economy as the nation geared up for war, and the melancholy separations brought on by the war all combined to make the new Christmas carols of the 1940s resonate with the national consciousness, then and even now.

And in a real-life example of the Biblical exhortation to beat swords into plowshares, the technology developed to accurately record and play back the sounds of U-boats plying their deadly trade connected with a mass market soon after the war—in the form of “high-fidelity” amplifiers with which to listen to those Christmas carol records.

Digital Adventure

 

In the second Pets in Space anthology, we hit the USA Today bestseller list one day shortly after it was released.  As of this writing, it has 131 Amazon reviews and a 4 1/2-star rating. And now this honor comes along. Being on a best book list under the auspices of Library Journal is particularly nice.

What an adventure Pets in Space has been! And to a great degree it’s been a remarkably digital adventure.  For one thing, it’s an e-book original.  There is a paperback edition of Embrace the Romance: Pets in Space 2, but at 700 pages and almost $30, it’s a more special edition than what most readers would buy for their home libraries.  On the other hand, at $3.99 the e-book is nicely priced considering how big it is. Containing twelve  novelettes or novellas, with different sexual heat levels and wildly different pets, there’s something for almost everyone in this anthology.

With the other eleven authors, including the two who organized the anthology and the publicist working with us, we talked about the book and the publicity electronically – in a Facebook group.  Which worked great.  The writers (not to mention the publicist, who is Australia-based Narelle Todd of Get My Book Out There) are geographically scattered, But with the FB group we could interact in nearly real time or at anyone’s convenience – even on vacation or when dodging hurricanes.

Before and especially after the book was released October 10, we all revved up our Websites, Twitter, and everything else we had in the way of social media to promote the book.  In the end, that’s why we’ve gotten the accolades we have so far.  Yes, the stories are good and the concept is delightful, but in today’s publishing world, if you don’t manage to make your book known, the vast majority of your likely, appreciative, even adoring readers will never find out about it. I once heard a veteran micro-publisher advise authors, “Don’t forget there are still millions of people who don’t know about your book, so keep promoting it.”

So the digital adventure continues!

 

 

‘Oumuamua

Artist’s impression of 1I/2017 U1 (`Oumuamua)-image credit ESO/M. Kornmesser

It so happens that I titled my previous blog post. “Rendezvous with Routine.”  Science fiction readers will catch the reference to Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal Rendezvous with Rama, a novel about an enormous, cylindrical alien habitat that happens to pass through our solar system in transit from some unknown-to-us location to another unfathomable location.

Now real-life astronomers are preparing to publish a paper about their discovery of an actual visitor passing through our solar system.  It’s a strangely elongated asteroid evocative of the shape of Rama. Just weeks ago it passed closer to our Sun than we are here on Earth. Though not artificial, but it’s nonetheless historic: the first object known to humankind to have entered our solar system from outside and to become available for our study.

The interstellar asteroid’s new name, ‘Oumuamua, means “a messenger from afar arriving first” in Hawaiian.

The detailed European Space Observatory press release can be found here.

Novels of science fiction with wonder, hope and love