KSP: It really IS rocket science

True confession: I am easily distracted by strategy games on my computer. I have owned every version of Civilization since the original, and every Sim-* game since the original SimCity, other than the most recent one–and even that may change, now that Maxis has eliminated the “always online” requirement. I spend all day worrying about how my actions will affect other people; I don’t need a social game to compound that requirement.

This year, however, I started playing Kerbal Space Program (KSP), and was surprised to discover (like Randall Munroe) that I’m gaining an intuitive understanding of orbital mechanics, which I used to find counterintuitive. The other thing I find myself realizing is just how big the universe really is. That is to say, the magnitude of space is beginning to sink in for me. But to really understand this, we need to start closer to home, with a simple airline flight.

airline-viewYour commercial flight is perhaps 10 thousand feet in the air, perhaps less, and since you finished your novel during the layover in Detroit, you look out your window at the view. “Wow, you think, those houses are so small. I’m a long way up in the air.” But you aren’t even two miles above the ground.

I don’t mean to belittle that altitude. I’m sufficiently acrophobic that the thought of falling a few dozen feet is angst-producing for me. Compared to space travel, though, this is really nothing. Astronauts in the International Space Station, for example, habitually orbit at an altitude of 230 miles above the surface of the earth.

low kerbin orbitFor Kerbals in KSP, the numbers are a bit different, but the effect is similar. This picture shows an orbital altitude of 80,000 meters, which is roughly equivalent to low earth orbit (LEO) for kerbonauts, whose atmosphere is only a third as deep as ours. (From this point on, I’ll be using screenshots from KSP to illustrate this article, but I’ll try to use numbers from our solar system. I think the relative scales are still valid.)

Low earth orbit is a long way up, but compared to the earth, it isn’t a terribly big distance.  In fact, you would travel roughly 230 miles if you drove from Buffalo, NY to the state capital in Albany.  Compared to the size of the earth itself, LEO is practically touching the surface. Despite this, no human has gone higher than Low Earth Orbit since the Apollo program of the 1970s put men on the moon.

Since I grew up with the lunar landings as historical fact, I was never really impressed by them.  Having played with KSP, though, I now realize just how stupendously far away the earth’s moon really is.  At an altitude of more than 200,000 miles, the moon is three orders of magnitude higher than LEO.

moon visibleBy comparison, the distance around the world is only about 25,000 miles at the equator. To make his small step for man, Neil Armstrong travelled a distance equal to a trip around the world–more than nine times over.

This distance is so large, I didn’t really comprehend it until I took a look at the KSP-scale distance to the Mun, shown at left. In order to see it on my screen, I had to scroll back so far that the orbit of my spaceship (shown in blue) basically merged with the edge of the planet it was orbiting. And the ratio of those two distances is actually less than the real difference between the Moon’s orbit and LEO.

This immensity of scale is just the beginning, though. The planet Venus, our nearest neighbor, is never closer than about 23 million miles from us. That is roughly 100 times the distance from the earth to the moon. Once again, the scale is so tremendous that to visualize a trip from the earth to another planet, we have to zoom back so far that lunar distances disappear in the roundoff error of my first-order-approximate envelope calculations here.eve visible

Beyond our sun, the orders of magnitude just keep growing. The nearest neighbor to the Sun, Alpha Centauri, is 25 trillion miles away. This number, roughly 100,000 times the closest distance between Earth and Venus, is so large that we don’t normally talk about it in miles. Instead, the preferred unit is light years, with each light year representing the distance that light can travel in a year, or 5.8 trillion miles. At that scale, Alpha Centauri is a little over 4 light years away.

If you aren’t mind-boggled yet, consider this: the Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light years across, and the next nearest galaxy, Andromeda, is 2.5 million light years away. There are other, more distant galaxies in our local cluster, and other galaxy clusters still further away. The local Virgo supercluster, containing our galactic cluster and its nearest neighbors, is bigger in light years than the earth’s orbit is in miles, or roughly the distance to the moon in feet.

Clearly, we have a long way to go if we want to explore the universe.

Communications Breakdown

“What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate.”

–Cool Hand Luke

In my many years of work in software development and IT, I have worked with companies that manufacture cruise ships, gas and oil drilling platforms, automobiles, and turbines. One key capability I have often been called upon to develop and deploy are redundant control systems–groups of computers that interact to insure that a single hardware failure cannot trigger a loss of control.disney-magic

The typical mechanism used in redundant systems involves failover. In server redundancy, for example, there is an active primary computer and one or more secondary computers monitoring it. When the primary computer fails, the secondary computer begins doing the job of the primary system.

The difficulty in designing software for redundant servers isn’t the case where failover to the secondary system occurs, or even the case where control is returned back to the primary system. The real difficulty occurs when both systems remain online, but communications between the two servers is lost. In that scenario, the secondary server may try to take over while the primary still has control, possibly leading to overall loss of control or even equipment damage.

Miscommunication between the characters in your story can be used to cause a similar loss of control for your protagonist.  The problem isn’t her failure, or the failure of her partner–its the fact that their parallel attempts to assert control may interact with each other in unexpected ways. For a control system, this is bad. For a writer in the middle of a story, it’s ideal.

How are you taking advantage of miscommunication to add complexity to your stories?

Eclecticism Explained

I first described myself as an interstitial writer in a cover letter accompanying one of my early short stories (alas, it didn’t sell). At the time, I thought it was an appropriate description of my writing method. Right now, at least, I have pressing conflicts that keep me from being a full-time writer:interstitial defect

  • I have a Wife and Children;
  • I have Work and Ministry obligations;
  • I have to leave some room for me.

In the interstices of these obligations and desires, I have been learning to write science fiction. It’s proven to be harder work than I thought, and I often find myself asking if I have the pedigree to do this. After all, I’m not a professor of biochemistry or physics. I have no experience with NASA or as a voice for the Open Source movement. And I’m certainly not a brilliant in my thoughts about people and technology.  So where does that leave me?

All I have left is to be who I am:  a man passionate about God and His Universe, about technology and people, about words and the emotions we express with them. I stopped reading Scientific American when their editorials made it clear I wasn’t welcome, and I hesitate to talk about my skepticism with Christians who might think I’m a bad influence on their children. I’m stuck in the middle.

And that, surprisingly enough, is what it means to be interstitial.

Recently, while reading the submission guidelines for Strange Horizons, I found that they want to encourage submissions by “traditionally under-represented groups,” and realized I may just have a chance. Yes, I realize that white, protestant, middle-aged men from the suburbs are far from rare, even left-handed ones, but this is SF, and who’s more under-represented in SF than people of faith? Now all I have to do is finish a story good enough to deserve publication.

One step at a time.


Happy Resurrection Day

This holiday weekend, my dear wife has been out of town visiting the child she calls “the Princess” on her blog.  She has been somewhat concerned that I won’t eat well while she’s gone. To assuage those concerns, I took a picture of today’s lunch — a true balanced meal:balanced lunch

I call it a balanced meal because it contains all four basic food groups of geek culture:

  • salt (on the almonds)
  • sugar (figs, chocolate)
  • grease (chocolate)
  • caffeine (coffee)

Many of you are probably shaking your heads in solidarity with my poor wife, thinking what a fool I am for calling this a meal.  Those with deep understanding of geek culture are asking why I needed anything more than the Hershey bar:  after all, prepared chocolate contains all four of the aforementioned ingredients to some degree. But before you decide to crucify me for gastronomical sacrilege, please look past my joke and consider the following:

  1. figs are loaded with fiber, and are actually a healthy snack;
  2. dark chocolate is full of antioxidants, and good for your heart;
  3. almonds are a provide key minerals, and lower my bad cholesterol;
  4. taken black, this coffee reduces my cancer risk, and adds few calories;
  5. these four items were only a garnish to my actual meal:

actual lunchClam chowder is one of the great foods of my youth that my wife and children don’t like–so when they’re out of town, I eat it.  And my primary beverage for that meal was (filtered) tap water.

Maybe my ability to eat well isn’t so dependent on my wife as some may incorrectly presume.


“…the fact of quantum entanglement is this: If one logically inexplicable thing is known to exist, then this permits the existence of all logically inexplicable things.”

– Brian McGreevy, Hemlock Grove

Imagine a subatomic collision that produces two electrons. Due to conservation of spin, we know that one of the electrons has “up” spin, and the other has “down” spin — but we don’t know which is which. Now isolate the two electrons from interaction with other particles and separate them by an arbitrary distance. At this point you have two electrons, each in a superposition of states. Because we don’t know the spin of either electron, they both behave as if they could be have either one.

But here’s the fun part:  when you measure the spin of one particle, the waveform collapses, and it no longer behaves as if it could have the other spin.  Furthermore, at the same instant, the other particle’s waveform collapses as well. This is an example of the quantum phenomenon known as entanglement.

Since the knowledge transfer implied by this waveform change seems to occur faster than the speed of light, we can theoretically use it to implement all kinds of useful SF devices, especially the ansible. Time being what it is, however, anything that happens faster than the speed of light could lead to all manner of confusion in time-ordering of events, and smart people say it can’t be done.

Made you look!This has led me to a more interesting series of thoughts about the nature of time. Specifically, what if the future is not as a known (or unknown) series of events, but is instead a quantum superposition of all possible states? When we experience something, it collapses the waveform associated with that event, and it becomes fixed — but so does the waveform of everything connected to that event, which affects other quantum states, and so forth. We as sentient beings experience these transitions as a forward progression in time, and our interaction with these transitions as free will.

In my latest short story, “Entanglement,” I combine these two ideas into a hard-SF justification for prophecy. If the Prophet is himself somehow entangled with events in the future, then his awareness of those events “measures” the local waveform, thereby forcing the waveform associated with the future event to collapse. In a way, it is his very knowledge of the future that causes the future to occur.

This same theory, extended backward in time, may lead to a situation where the past becomes equally nonexistent whenever it loses its causal connection to the present. Those who fail to remember history shall doom it to no longer exist. But that’s a story for another day.

The Christmas Dress

A long time ago, when my eldest daughter was even tinier than she is today, my wife bought her a special Christmas dress.christmas-dress It was red, and decorated with a series of Christmas-themed buttons — a gift wrapped package, a Christmas tree, and so forth — each different from the next. She loved that dress.

One day, a button came loose from the dress, and my daughter was devastated. It was the kind of innocent pain that only a small child can express, the kind where no life experience can be used for comparison. She wept and wailed, and my wife sought to console her.

“Don’t worry,” my wife said, “the button is okay.  Mommy can sew it back on.”

My daughter’s tears stopped, and she looked at her mother, perplexed. “No you can’t,” she said.  “That’s daddy’s job.”

Periodically, I tell this story, and we all laugh, because it violates our preconceived idea of manhood. But it shouldn’t be funny.

Women still face a lot of discrimination in this world, and we need to correct that. If we want to succeed, though, we’re going to need a world where not only can a woman be accepted as she is, but where a man can, too.


Meet Serafina, Part 3 (religion)

This is another in a series of posts about a character I am developing for my novel-in-progress, Power of Boston.  For the rest of this series, you may want to read Part 1 or Part 2 as well. Your comments as always are appreciated.

To work well within the plot of my story, it is essential that Serafina have high regard for her personal modesty. At the same time, it is vital to me that she not be perceived as a victim.

The story of The Girl in the Skirt convinced me that women who wish to live differently can run into conflict with their associates because of the way they dress. I have seen similar conflicts in the lives of Christian women who favor long skirts and eschew jewelry because of their views of modesty.  I think Serafina is that kind of woman: different by choice.

On the other hand,  Serafina is a bit of an action hero, and a capable fighter. She would not consider it practical to wear a skirt. How then, would I demonstrate her modesty by the way she dresses? The answer, I think, is hijab. While many seem to think that hijab is a symbol of opression, those who wear it by choice seem to be proud of it, and for some, it is even a feminist symbol.  The fact that some will misinterpret it, or insult her because of it, only adds substance to her character.tumblr_l97doy8OII1qcamkko1_r1_500-147s22q

This then leads to the question of what faith background Serafina should have. I don’t think I could effectively tell her story if she were a Muslim, but I don’t think that’s essential. When I visited Japan, I found there were many nominal or cultural Buddhists, and I am convinced that most Americans are cultural Christians. I therefore see no reason why Serafina couldn’t be a cultural Muslim.

Serafina’s father came to the US to work as a mathematics professor at the University of Chicago. His parents, worried that he would be corrupted by American culture, convinced him to marry before he left home for his new job. His wife (Serafina’s mother) is a conservative Muslim.  Like her father, Serafina is more of an agnostic, but she learned modesty from her mother.

The question I have, however, is whether this will be best for my story.

  1. I think Serafina’s relationship to the Ethiopian community at large will add depth to my story, but the majority of Ethiopians are Christian. Do Christian and Muslim Ethiopians in the US interact to a significant degree?
  2. If Serafina’s parents come from the Muslim community in Addis Ababa, do I need to discard Amharic as her second language? Being able to focus on one language will greatly simplify my research.
  3. How would the more conservative family members react to the fact that she is
    1. working as an executive with authority over men,
    2. habitually dressing in trousers (pantsuits), and
    3. is still single at the age of 34?

I have no intent to let Serafina back down in the face of those conflicts, but I want to understand them so she can confront them accurately.