November 18, 2014

This Video Really Takes Me Back to When We Were Kids and Would Doze Off in Front of the TV, Sleeping Fitfully…

… on the itchy sectional sofa, and all the shows would run together as we tossed and turned, blending together until they finally relaxed into being the all-droning, ululating laugh-track groan of the VidGod Itself, muttering to us what to purchase next and who should be chased through the forest, barefoot and panting, until we cornered him (or her!) in the sodium-vapor infused strip-mall parking lots and--well, I don't need to be tedious about it. We've all seen Small Wonder and Out of this World, amiright? Great shows, just great, great slices of Americana. Right?

(I.e., keep watching through to the end; there's a Special Guest Star this week--and it's maybe you!)

November 13, 2014

What I'm Listening to: The Golden Record Nailed to the Side of an Alien Spacecraft[*]

On honor of earth's robots' recent success in capturing a comet, I've spent the morning listening to the music that's inscribed on the "golden records" attached to the outside of the Voyager I and II space probes. (I wrote about this record last year, when Voyager I finally escaped our solar system. Errata: in that post I erroneously claimed that "Johnny B. Goode," Navajo Chant, and "Dark Was the Night—Cold Was the Ground"—my personal pick from this album—are the only tracks by US artists on the record; there is also a Louise Armstrong Blues. All apologies to the Idea of the Ghost of Mr. Armstrong for the omission [see also].)

At any rate, here's by far the best presentation of the Golden Record I've come upon to date; a real joy to run in the background as you toil away your finite hours in service to the vast web of computers that have enmeshed and now devour us all:

Infinite Voyager

If you are a simple 1970's robot stuck on a 50-year death-trip road trip with no real destination and only one mix tape, you could do worse. Godspeed to all the little robots we keep condemning to the void; you are indeed brave little toasters.


Continue reading "What I'm Listening to: The Golden Record Nailed to the Side of an Alien Spacecraft[*]" »

November 12, 2014

In About an Hour Humanity Will Harpoon a Star: Rosetta, Philae, and the Comet

Ten years ago humans launched this box into space. It was about the size of a couple refrigerators shoved together, and it had another box strapped to it that's sort of the size and shape of a doghouse. The target was this comet you've never heard of out past Jupiter. Back in August the refrigerators caught up to the comet, and early this morning it released the doghouse. Around 11am today that doghouse is going to harpoon the comet.

European Spacecraft Set to Harpoon a Comet Tomorrow | NASA

Early tomorrow morning [Nov 12], the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft will deploy its comet lander, "Philae." A little over seven hours later (8 a.m. PST/11 a.m. EST), the experiment-laden, harpoon-firing Philae is scheduled to touch down on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It will be the first time in history that a spacecraft has attempted a soft landing on a comet. Rosetta is an international mission led by the European Space Agency (ESA), with instruments provided by its member states, and additional support and instruments provided by NASA.

"I know it sounds like something out of Moby Dick, but when you think about the gravity field of a comet, it makes a lot of sense to harpoon one," said Art Chmielewski, project manager for the U.S. participation in Rosetta, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Comet 67P has approximately 100,000 times less gravity than Earth does. So, if you don't want to float away, you have to go to extraordinary measures to attach yourself to its dusty surface. The Philae lander has two harpoons, shock-absorbing landing gear, and a drill located on each of the lander's three feet. It even has a small, upward-firing rocket engine. All this to help keep it on the surface."

This pic is one that the Philae lander took in October, showing the Rosetta probe it's riding (that's the big solar panel), with the comet in the background. (Source: European Space Agency, via Slate.com). The comet looks like two asteroids because it's got a really jankety shape, as shown below (photoshopped onto LA, to give a sense of scale--a totally, breathtakingly existentially mortifying sense of scale):

When I explained this whole thing to my wife last month, showing her the "Rosetta selfie" from the top of this post, her response was: "Thirty years ago some little boy had a dream of someday harpooning a comet, and here we are."

I don't know about the genders involved, but in the broad strokes, she's totally right.

When her brother was a kid someone asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.

"A tractor!" he said.

No, they told him, You want to be a farmer, Paul; a farmer drives the tractor.

"No! I want to be a tractor on the moon!"

And he, of course, became an engineer (like his father) working for Whirlpool (like his father). And, on the one hand, this sounds sort of small, spending your life working on the control system for a washer or refining the circuit design for a dryer. It ain't plowing the moon or lassoing a star. It's not what little boys and girls dream of.

But I have one of those washers. I see washers and dryers that my father-in-law helped design in folks' houses all the time. These quite literally *mundane* engineers touch millions of lives daily, globally. In countless, tiny ways they've remade the world. To me, that really seems like the power of these big grand gestures, chasing the comets and roving Mars: That it sells humans on doing the daily little work to make being human a little less toil and a little more joy. I mean, for real, the guys and gals who designed the clamp to hold the doghouse to the refrigerators for 10 years, until this morning when that clamp had to do its one job right, they weren't Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. They were little folks working in crappy cubicles to do their small part in totally altering the Universe. All great things happen this way, and all things that are the sum of many humans doing their little part are great.

So, Paul has a baby coming in about four weeks, and he isn't plowing the moon, but I think we can all agree that's fine: His work makes taking care of babies--who produce a huge volume of dirty laundry--that much easier, and you can't grow a damn thing on the moon, anyway; it never *rains* there, kid. #sheesh

Wanna watch the harpoon-landing live? There's a webcast for that; tune in!

November 11, 2014

*UPDATE* HELLA GOOD DEAL ALERT! $7 "Helping Hands" from Maker Shed!--and Even Cheaper at Harbor Freight!?! #diy

UPDATE: My lifelong compadre Adam Stein points out that Harbor Freight has basically the same Helping Hands for $3.50! *Yikes!* BUY NOW!

I don't normally post stuff like this, but Maker Shed has a couple really good deals right now for folks new to soldering.

These helping hands are a *steal* at $6.99, and make life *so much easier.* There is now almost *no* soldering task I do without using my helping hands (although I have pulled off the magnifier, which was never very useful to me). Also, this variable-temp soldering iron also looks promising. The reviews are mixed, but at $25, it's probably worth taking a chance.

November 06, 2014

Things I'm Backing: HAPHEAD (a sci-fi web series) and RADIOTOPIA (indie storytelling podcast network)

For a guy that gripes often about how sick he is of Kickstarter, I seem to spend an unlikely amount of energy hyping folks' Kickstarters. All cosmic irony aside, here are two projects that I think are worth your shekels; take that with any number of grains of salt you deem necessary.

HAPHEAD

First off is Haphead, a scifi web series that's actually already been shot, and just needs funds to finish post-production. I've often sung the praises of Jim Munroe in the past (his novel Angry Young Spaceman was huge for me when I was in my 20s--and read it as an ebook on a goddamn Palm IIIx. I also dug his recent iOS video game, and hosted the first Midwestern screening of his last film). Haphead is a new thing for Jim--who's long done projects totally independently and on a shoestring--in that instead of relying on volunteers, goodwill, and borrowed gear, everyone is getting paid. The end result is a work with production values to match the writing and performances. It looks super, duper slick, and I'm excited to see it come out ASAP:

Backing this project means seeing it go live and free on the web ASAP, rather than having it go into a drawer until they figure out some other way to fund the finishing touches.

ADDED BONUS (FOR US BACKERS ONLY!!!) Since this is all being done by charming Canadians around Toronto, the favorable exchange rate means backing at $10 CAD (to get a hi-def pre-release download of all 8 episodes) will only cost you $8.46! Take advantage of foreign exchange rates, just like a Wall Street Douchebag!

RADIOTOPIA

The other back-worth project is Radiotopia. This began as an outgrowth of an insanely successful Kickstarter for a single show, and has basically become a narrative-driven podcast-only NPR: A network of high-quality, highly entertaining shows arranged around first-person story-driven journalism and a new generation of "radio dramas."

I'm a huge fan of 99 Percent Invisible--and backed that original runaway-success Kickstarter--and similarly love some of the shows that Radiotopia has since adopted and funded. Chief among these is The Truth. This Truth episode from mid-September, Cold Reading is a perfect example of the sort of not-highly-profitably, but still highly-polished work that you fund when you kick in on this Kickstarter.

Radiotopia has already fully funded (yeah!), but if they get to 20,000 backers--at any level--they get a $25,000 bonus. So all you have to do here is kick them a lousy buck to help this project get a big boos. That's pretty rad.


November 03, 2014

Write Better: Watch Penn & Teller Saw Your Cognitive Load in Half! #writing

One of the things I think about a lot when I'm writing--but have only written about a little and tangentially--is cognitive load: The amount of data we expect readers to juggle and integrate. Readers only have so much cognitive bandwidth; writing that begins to overload this bandwidth is, at best, "challenging"--or, more frequently, simply frustrating and tiresome.

Managing Someone Else's Cognitive Load

One way (the primary way?) of managing cognitive load is to balance the new/interesting/challenging items/structures you want readers to handle by giving them very easy-to-digest formulaic frameworks. E.g., Do you have a very complicated plot? Then either give them a very constrained set of characters (e.g., very few in number--like in Primer--or highly caricatured, like in The Usual Suspects). Numerous or very psychologically complex characters? Keep the story running in real-time (Hitchcock's Rope), or confined to a single location (Reservoir Dogs), so readers don't have to track both shifting alliances and shifting time/place. Very elevated language, or a challenging invented argot (Clockwork Orange, looking at you)? Keep the plot straightforward and the structure rigid (Clockwork is, at its heart, a very simple morality play broken into three equal-weighted acts, and tracing a downright medieval character trajectory).[*]

And so on. There's a million combinations, but it starts with realizing that your reader's attention is finite and precious, and you need to make hard choices in directing and managing that attention.

The 45/45/10 Formula

My fall-back formula for managing cognitive load in a story is to break it into 45/45/10 by word count:

  • The first 45% of the words are the Setup: Characters and situations are presented and relationships made clear.
  • The next 45% of the words are the Tangle: A complication disrupts (or at least complicates) the situation laid out in the Setup.
  • The last 10% of the story is the Resolution: The knot is Untangled, for better or worse.[**]

    45/45/10 stories have pretty consistently proven easier for me to place than anything else, and I believe that's because they are much easier to *read*. (It's a very common pattern--you see it all over short stories and novels--and students of creative writing will no doubt notice that it's basically a boiled-down version of the infamous three-act structure I was going on about last week. Just to make a quick point about process, though: I fall back on the 45/45/10 as a way to analyze things I'm revising, or to help me suss out where I should go next if I lose the thread of my narrative, but it isn't like I use it to generate stories. It's a formula into which I plug in characters, situations, and problems, not a handle I crank so that a black-box will poop out a salable story.)

    Penn & Teller Cut Through the Tangle

    So, all that said, here's Penn & Teller's version of Sawing the Lady in Half. I love P&T, but not just because they are good magicians (in fact, having seen them live now and again, I can see that they aren't always that hot, in terms of the mechanics of sleight-of-hand; they botch things just as often as any other live pros). What I love about P&T is that they make the fact that magic is a narrative art front and center; it's not about technique or gimmicks or effect, it's about telling stories (just like good ads and good poems and good stories). And, because I'm still a post-modern comp lit student at heart, I'm tickled even further by the fact that their stories are always *meta*fictions, stories about the nature of stories themselves, and story telling. They are *meta*-magicians whose work, over the long haul, comments on and critiques their craft in a deep and loving way. I love *that* meaty, rich approach, which means that even if I occasionally find the execution a little weak, I don't care because the overall *narrative* of the trick is itself delightful and instructive.

    As is the case here: this trick--and oldy, but a goody--falls tidily into my best belovéd 45/45/10 formula: They give as a full Setup--with four characters (one of them being us, the audience, who in P&T's stories is *always* a character), they Tangle that Setup, and then they Resolve it in a way that implicates everyone involved (including us, the audience). it is a tight and lovely 3min35sec. Watch it, and watch the clock while you do:


    Continue reading "Write Better: Watch Penn & Teller Saw Your Cognitive Load in Half! #writing" »

  • October 30, 2014

    Narrative, Argument, and 3-Part Structures: Beginning, Middle, End; Pity, Fear, Catharsis; Claim, Support, Conclude; Arrive, Observe, Conquer

    Listen: All pieces of halfway decent writing--all jokes, all ad copy, all novels, all recipes, all news articles--are narrative, and all narrative is formulaic. There aren't exceptions, just the rule. And that formula, at it's base, is the Fundamental Three-Part Structure[*]

    But, to be clear, I never draft anything beginning with the Structure. I don't think the Formula is any good for generating "content." That said, once I catch the thread of what I'm working on, I invariably start to break it down into its three parts, in order to get a sense of how I should develop the piece. This is basically automatic now with essays--because I've been writing them for so damn long--but I still very self-consciously seek out the parameters of the "Setup," "Tangle," and "Untangle" (my pet names for these parts in fiction) when I'm working a story (and it very much feels like *working* a story, not *writing* it or *drafting* it; you work a story like you work clay).

    So, while you might not buy into that tired old "three-act structure," I think you discount structure and formula, in general, at your peril. For me, the refusal to see writing fiction as being fundamentally the same as writing non-fiction--structurally--immeasurably slowed my progress as a writer of stories: All of my sales were happy accidents, all my failures bewildering mysteries.

    But the thing is that not everyone's formulation of the Fundamental Three-Part Structure works for everyone else. Like I said, because I had an early and thorough introduction to drama (esp. Shakespeare--a writer of *five* act plays), I rejected the "three-act structure" early (and lamentably).

    But there are *tons* of ways of characterizing the Fundamental Three-Part Structure--just like there are tons of faces of the One True God (*zing!*) The trick is finding the characterization that works for you (I'll share mine down the road--but tonight this needs to be short, so short I'll keep it). Aristotle, for example, characterized the Fundamental Three-Part Structure as the audience--identifying with the protagonist--being guided through Pity, Fear, and Catharsis.

    It's in that spirit that I present this talk by Julian Friedmann. He's a literary/screen(?) agent I'd never heard of before, but he has a somewhat novel spin on the Fundamental Three-Part Structure. He talks about structure and Aristotle's Pity-Fear-Catharsis starting around 8:18, but the whole thing is a worthy watch. I also very much dig Friedmann explanation of why we consistently and deeply enjoy narrative, in that it is an opportunity to "rehearse our fears." I think that's important, esp. if you want to make some dough in this game, or are perplexed why something with abysmal writing--like THE HUNGER GAMES--is a bestseller, while countless beautifully written novels bumble along boring you to tears. A big part of it is that those lovely pieces of lyrical writing have failed to make sure their structure is sturdy and balanced. And part of it is that they are giving you no opportunity to rehearse your fear of what comes next.

    Continue reading "Narrative, Argument, and 3-Part Structures: Beginning, Middle, End; Pity, Fear, Catharsis; Claim, Support, Conclude; Arrive, Observe, Conquer" »

    October 28, 2014

    #AnnArbor Voters: It's Probably Best to Vote YES on Annexing Whitmore Lake Public Schools

    If you aren't a registered voter in Ann Arbor (or, I guess, Whitmore Lake), MI, then you probably won't care about this at all (unless you just *adore* inside baseball on small-town politics). And if you *are* a registered voter in Ann Arbor, you probably still don't even understand the annexation thing--nonetheless, we've gotta vote on the damn thing come November 4. Fortunately, there's a really very informative FAQ. Give it a read.

    SHORT OVERVIEW: Whitmore Lake schools are broke. They asked AAPS to absorb them. We're gonna vote on whether or not we should do that.

    TL;DR: Vote YES.

    BUT WHY DAVE-O?: Well, a few reasons:

    1. We have great schools and this won't harm that. By the latest calculations, our per-pupil funding will go down, like, $7 per year post annexation. By annexing Whitmore Lake we help them keep their local schools, so we won't pump up class sizes in our existing schools. Win-win (well, incredibly-minor-loss-win, but you get what I'm getting at). On balance, this is a small price to pay for a larger good.
    2. It's a big boost to the kids in Whitmore Lake. Whitmore Lake is a small community--just 1,000 students, compared to our 16,000 students. After annexation they'll see something like a $2,000-per-student boost in spending. Their teachers will also be paid better--at AAPS scale--and their programs will be expanded, getting back art and music and AP classes they had to cut as their finances collapsed. These are all good things.
    3. It's cheap. Check out point #13 in the FAQ linked above; if Zillow says your house is worth $200,000, then annexing Whitmore Lake Schools will cost you just $25/year--or ~$2 per month--in added taxes. For $25 per year, you'll be improving the lives of 1,000 kids in a neighboring community, you'll up the pay for their ~60 teachers, and you'll ease the burdens suffered by their parents. That's good.
    4. Taking no action is risky. Right now this is a good deal because there are incentives in place to encourage AAPS to move forward with the annexation. If we decline to do this and Whitmore Lake Schools collapse, then we'll likely absorb the students into our local schools, with no incentives. They'll lose their local schools, their teachers will be fired, our class sizes will go up, and per-pupil spending will drop. That's bad.

      Also, just in case you've never suffered through it yourself, and haven't been watching what's up in Detroit, let's be clear: bankruptcy (and other forms of dissolution, like dissolving a school district) is *designed* to be an absolutely miserable process. It is chaotic, and it is hurtful, and it is absolutely punishing. Having helped family members whose noses were being pressed to that particular grinding wheel, I can tell you: I wouldn't wish it on war criminals or Internet trolls, let alone the basically blameless families of Whitmore Lake. Leaving Whitmore Lake out to dry consigns them to suffering and opens us up to the risk of being forced to shoulder the burden of more students with less money. That's a whole lot of downside risk for the dubious pleasure of maintaining our moral superiority and saving two bucks per month.


    COMPLICATING FACTORS:

    1. Assorted Gish Galloping. Lots of distracting questions get thrown up whenever someone tries to talk about annexation: If annexation is so great, why didn't you do this for Ypsi? What about local control? Why didn't Whitmore Lake handle their finances better? What about our children?!? What about our taxes?!? My general policy is to restrict any given discussion to the present moment, not the past and future and relentless, endless hypotheticals, but just to hit these: 1) Ypsi never asked to be annexed to AAPS, and therefore it never came up. That's how it works. They have to ask. We aren't a horde of invading Huns and Mongols snatching up territory here. 2) "Local control" doesn't really impress me, "local contact" does. I have no idea who the folks are running for school board (sorry!), but I talk to my son's teacher, Mr. Taylor at Pattengill, literally every single day. He's given me his cellphone number, and he goes out of his way to work closely with me for what's best for my son and his classmates. I want as many students as possible to have that level of local contact, and so maintaining Whitmore Lake's neighborhood schools is a high priority for me, as a human being. 3) How did Whitmore Lake get into such dire arrears? I have no clue, and I don't really care, because it certainly is not the fault of the 1,000 children whose education some folks seem to be very eager to flush down the toilet. Those kids are blameless, and it's those kids who will be hurt most if their schools cease to exist. Besides, whatever Whitmore Lake Schools did wrong, they clearly won't repeat after annexation, because the administration will be entirely replaced by AAPS. 4) As for taxes: It's $25ish per year. If you think kicking in $25 so that a child can enjoy $2000 of education is a crappy investment, then that's your call. For my money, it's a terrific return. 5) And "What about our children?!?" Frankly, I think annexation is a good lesson for our children: We have an obligation to help care for our neighbors, and if you think you have something good, then you should share it, not hoard it. I think we have good schools. I'd like to share that. But, again, that's just for me. Perhaps you have a different lesson you want to teach your children. That's your piece, and godspeed with it.
    2. The ballot language is just plain awful. My old editor at the Ann Arbor Chronicle, Dave Askins, pointed this one out. Here's the ballot language for the annexation, and it's just awful. It's entitled "PROPOSAL TO ASSUME THE BONDED INDEBTEDNESS OF WHITMORE LAKE PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT" and begins:

      Shall the Public Schools of the City of Ann Arbor, County of Washtenaw, Michigan, assume the bonded indebtedness of the Whitmore Lake Public School District . . .

      I mean, for reals, who in their right mind would vote for that, just based on the ballot language? Ugh!

    So, now that we're way down at the bottom of the page, if you've read this far and you hear what I'm saying, you might want to spread the word: Vote YES on "assuming the bonded indebtedness of blah blah blah"; vote YES on annexation

    In case you have questions, there's one last community forum on the annexation. It's at 6:30 tonight (Wed Oct 29), at the Skyline High School Media Center.

    October 26, 2014

    Dropping a Mercury "Water" Balloon (!!!)

    This strikes me as a terrible, terrible idea, but *jeeesus* that slow-mo footage is beautiful! (The slow-mo starts around 1:35.)

    October 23, 2014

    BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT!!! #OMG #DIY @nostarch

    It's official! My new DIY book—Junkyard Jam Band: DIY Musical Instruments and Noisemakers—will be in stores early next year. This is what I've been working on over the past couple years, as a follow-up to Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred: Seriously Geeky Stuff to Make with Your Kids, and offers a whole new slew of musical instruments and noise toys:

    Junkyard Jam Band is a step-by-step guide to making a full array of complete musical projects on the cheap, no previous carpentry or electronics experience required. Each build includes tips on how to coax the best sounds out of the instrument and encourages you to mod the project to fit your own style.

    Wanna Sneak-Peak?

    Here are a few of the videos I shot while prototyping projects (FUN FACT: While I live in Michigan, where my DIY books are actually physically printed, my publisher is in San Francisco, and I've only ever met one person in the company—and I knew her from back in knucklehead days. So, these books are entirely developed and executed as a series of disjoint emails, YouTube videos, Dropbox uploads, and disorientingly time-delayed VoIP calls.)

    First off is the Elephant Trumpet, which is one of the bone-simplest projects in the book, a quick goofy-fun build (that's my nephew tooting that rubber shofar, FYI):

    And here's the prototype of the core of what ultimately became the Twin-T Phaser/Wah, one of the more complicated builds (although still pretty accessible, even to folks new to hobby electronics—one of the things we've done in this book with the more complex projects is broken them into modular components that can be combined flexibly, so you can level them up into more complicated instruments and effects):

    We're also including a section on improvised percussion, which I wrote based on interviews and chats with Vince Russo, who's featured on lead vocals and washboard with the Appleseed Collective in this video (their shows are tons o' fun; definitely check them out if they tour through your town):


    Wanna Pre-Order?

    In all honesty, I'm flattered—'cause it's a remarkable leap of faith on your part, as I'm actually still drafting the copy for the last several projects (if you caught my recent tweet-of-existential-relief when I discovered that a critical failure in a circuit was just a bum switch, that was in reference to the finalized production version of the Twin-T Phaser/Wah circuit demoed above). But, for reals, there'll be a book come my baby girl's third birthday in 2015, so order away!

    PRO-TIP: The publisher, No Starch Press, is mos def offering the sweetest pre-order deal: 30% off plus free DRM-free ebooks (the PDFs of these books are *sweet-ass*! It's the PDF of my first book that I use as a reference when I'm building projects and doing demos.)

  • Pre-order Junkyard Jam Band: DIY Musical Instruments and Noisemakers from No Starch Press and save!

    And, of course, Amazon will hook you up:


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    About the Author


    David Erik Nelson is an award-winning science-fiction author and essayist. His fiction has appeared in Asimov's, The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded.

  • Find him online at www.davideriknelson.com
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    Make cool things (water rockets, cardboard boomerangs, a $10 electric guitar, a sock squid, etc.) while learning cool skills (basic soldering, sewing, carpentry, woodburning, etc.), and do it all on the cheap (most projects are under $10, many supplies are *FREE*).
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