Monday, September 29, 2014

Funny Enough for Bathroom Reading!

There are people, I know, who don't like Penn Jillette. I myself haven't met any. Even if you don't agree with his opinions, there is a certain style to the way he presents them. That is surely the case with God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales.

First, a warning or two. If you are a frail lady librarian from the heartland, are of a certain age, or find strong language intolerable, you won't get past the Tourette's-like frequency of Jillette's &*#%s. If your sense of offense is triggered by the sacriligeous, the title alone should provide enough red flag.

That being said, Penn Jillete has an eye for a humorous line, and it doesn't get much funnier than his thoughts on the power (or impotence) of religion. He takes on God (or as he consistently renders it, god) and church alike as a problem in today's society, and isn't shy about telling us why he feels neither has a place in our lives.

Much of the book is anecdotal in the extreme: we learn why his mother wasn't religious, and what his churchless children do for the holiday season that falls at the end of the calendar year. A supremely moving story about the death of his mother provides an insight into a secular ceremony to replace a funeral service. Another hilarious tale shows us the power of breaking religious food laws, as he and Teller introduce an ex-Jew to a bacon cheeseburger at a restaurant named Traif.

I enjoyed it thoroughly, mostly while "revering the porcelain god", but my simple testimony shouldn't sway you. Look inside, read a page or two and make up your own mind whether to buy in. After all, that's what Jillette is asking us to do with the various holy books we are heir to.

Can I get an Amen?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

City of Heroes

In the book by Jeanne Duprau, the City of Ember is a rule-bound place, where all the lights go out at 9 each night, everyone rises early for breakfast, and careful recycling is a way of life. Lately, though, the lights have begun flickering. Supplies are shorter each year, and some foods are no longer available.

Until their 12th year, the children of the City of Ember go to school. But at the end of that year, they are assigned the jobs they will do for years after, perhaps to the end of their lives. Lina yearns to be a messenger, running free in the streets, learning the secrets of the city. Doon wants desperately to be an electrician's assistant or a pipeworker, because he dreams of fixing the ancient, failing generators of the city.

When each receives the assignment the other wants, they switch jobs, and begin a conspiracy that will not end until they learn how to save the entire city. Along the way, they solve an ancient puzzle, defeat the greed and subterfuge of the Mayor and his minions, and discover a much wider world than either had ever dreamed existed.

When I read children's literature, I look for more than a tale well told. Juvenile science fiction is not hard to come by, especially if you include fantasy like Harry Potter and numerous vampire novels. But fiction that lauds heroism (particularly the kind of courage which every child will have an opportunity to demonstrate), extols the value of friendship, and shows when adult precepts and rules are worthwhile, and how to tell when they are not—that is uncommon. (Those qualities form the foundation of the Harry Potter stories, too, and explain the widespread appeal of the boy wizard and his friends.)

The City of Ember has that same appeal. Doon and Lina are courageous; they do things children would do, yet also show judgement, persistence and intelligence. These are kids who love their parents, and still see that they must take extraordinary steps outside the regimented life they have led. In the end, they do save their city, and if they do not battle great evil, they do encounter and overcome the kind of petty nastiness that is far more common in the world.


On Kindle, the book loses none of its original charm, with the possible exception of the maps and notes. Where these extend across the opened page, they are difficult to enjoy, even in Zoom mode.

The book works best in tandem with its sequel, The People of Sparks: The Second Book of Ember (Books of Ember). Together, they are an interesting story—even for an adult. I recommend it highly for boys and girls who want something better than comic-book heroes and video-game battles, and for readers who are no longer children, but still yearn toward the hero we can each become.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Rail's Manifest Destiny

Union Pacific 4014 engine being restored in Cheyenne, WY*
The death of writer Stephen Ambrose at age 66 was a tragedy of unborn popular histories. Ambrose was noted for his novelistic approach to history writing, primarily in dealing with war: WWII and its generals and privates, the internal struggles of the Civil and Indian wars, the American Revolution. Exceptions have focused on individuals: Eisenhower, Nixon, Lewis and Clark. 

 In one book, however, Ambrose writes of the host of personalities and historical motives impelling a single great enterprise. Nothing Like It in the World is the story of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad linking the east and west coasts of the United States. The story details the political and financial battles that culminated in the driving of the golden spike, and explains the need that drove the construction, and the consequences of its completion. 

Some of the most poetic writing I have read from this author is found in the introduction, in which Ambrose rides a train pulled by a steam locomotive to help develop the sense of ambiance he will bring to the novel:
To be in the locomotive of a steam-driven train, riding from Omaha to Reno, was for me... a memorable experience. First of all, [firemen] Steve Lee and Lynn Nystrom are big men, 250 or more pounds each, who put every ounce of themselves into their job... What impressed me most, however, was the size of the crowds... From what we could tell, every resident was beside the tracks, or up on a ridge we passed under, or out on a bluff that offered a view. Thousands of spectators. Tens of thousands...

I've led a life that makes me accustomed to people pointing cameras at me because of the man I'm with... I've never known anything like this... Much of the time we were paralleling Interstate 80. At rest stops, we would see semi-truck drivers on top of their vans, taking pictures... I asked Steve Lee if he had ever stopped to take a picture of a semi-truck. He said no. He added that the semi-truck drivers never stop to take a picture of a diesel locomotive.

It was then I learned that America has lost her heart to steam-driven locomotives.

So Nothing Like It in the World is a historical romance novel, and as is common in such stories, its heart is a broken one. Steam has been relegated the innards of generating plants and the rails of museums, and rarely plumes the sky with its driving power. All that pent-up motive power has been harnessed instead to this novel.

Ambrose brings into focus this first American super-structure, of which in its time it was truly said that there was nothing like it in the world. Names familiar to students of US history (Lincoln and Grant, Brigham Young, "Boss" Tweed) take their places in this story next to names really only familiar to those in their home states (Leland Stanford, William Ogden, Collis Huntington, Frederick Lander, E. B. Crocker), and others whom we meet for the first time in these pages (Theodore Judah, Peter Dey). 

Sadly, we will have no more from Ambrose's pen. Now that he is gone, there is nothing like him in the world. 

* Attribution for 4014 Photo: "UP Big Boy 4014". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Mechanical Solutions to 3D Printer Maintenance (The September Project Part VII)

The month isn't over, so we're technically still on track for the September Project timeline with our Bukito 3D printer.   

Those who've read the project notes Part I and Part IV know that we had a stuck screw that derailed some of our plans for earlier in the month, even though we were able to get the printer working with very little trouble.

The screw in the upper position on the extruder shroud (the cover over the hot parts to prevent accidental contact with skin), shown at the point of the arrow above, was seated so tightly that it could not be extracted without stripping the Phillips head. 

Not being able to remove the screw prevented us from being able to install the optional PLA fan shown to the right of the arrow above, but we simply slowed the print speed and proceeded.

Midway through the trial print of the "Hentai Porn Kindle Holder" described in "Part VI", we decided to pause the print to resolve some positioning issues with the object. After that point, we could not get extrusion to happen at all. Either the extruder wasn't heating enough to melt the filament, or the filament was not making it all the way to the extruder nozzle.

Whosa Whatsis (Whosawhatsis) at Deezmaker patiently walked us through or pointed us to several procedures to:
  1. Make sure the extuder nozzle was actually heating,
  2. Address the problem of a clog at the nozzle opening,
  3. "Cold pull" any clog from inside the extruder above the nozzle using ABS, PLA or nylon filament, and
  4. Remove the Bowden tube from the extruder to address clogs in the tube connection to the extruder.
The number 4 procedure would require us to remove the extruder shroud, so we hoped it would not come to that.

Worst Case Scenario

Of course, after eliminating the first three, it came down to number 4. We would have to remove the extruder cover. We had no alternative but to get that stuck screw unstuck.

By this time, from repeated tries at getting it unscrewed, the Phillips-head was a nearly-round divot in the screw head. I went online to research screw-extruder bits, and found a wide range of experiences with them. 

Some tool users said they worked fine, but others cited a real worst case: the extruder-bit broke off in the screw, and then the only option was to have it extracted at a machine shop (lots of $$)! With our luck, we'd be taking the printer to have a broken bit extracted.

Before I gave up and took a chance, I looked at other screw-extraction tools. One, a tool cleverly named VamPLIERS, had a blunt nose with a toothed opening that looked like it was designed to nip into the edges of the screw to assist turning it. While I don't already have a VamPLIERS in my tool-chest, I did have a blunt-nosed pliers with a clipper bite, like broad wire-cutters.

I used these to grip the upper and lower edges of the screw-head, clamped down, and twisted. Voila! Screw moved!

PLA Fan Installed

With the screw removed, the cover off, and the tube disconnected from the extruder, I was able to use a needle-nose pliers to extract an approximately 1-inch long noodle of filament thread from the end of the tube. A quick run-through of test 2 made sure there was nothing still in the nozzle.

While the extruder shroud was still off, we addressed the installation of the optional PLA fan. This was simple, following the well-illustrated step-by-step assembly instructions on the Deezmaker site. Since this was one of the tasks to be accomplished in The September Project, I crossed it off the list.

Still to Come

In the last week or so, we've done many of the intervening tasks from our list. Still left to be addressed are:

  • Modify G-code to tweak a print
  • Create our own 3D model using Trimble SketchUp (a simple one is a cookie cutter, a more complex idea I'll hold back as it may be commercially useful)
  • Develop a presentation incorporating 3D model creation, G-code controls, and production of prints, for delivery to middle-school or high-school STEM groups.

The last is in the first phases of development, following the guidelines from an eBook:
The Invent To Learn Guide to 3D Printing in the Classroom: Recipes for Success. I've made the initial measurements for one of the two 3D models, and we got an excellent book, Mastering 3D Printing by Joan Horvath (the aeronautical engineer who works at Deezmaker) to help with g-code.

So The September Project is really complete, even though we will continue to develop our presentation, and, of course, print objects from the Bukito portable 3D printer.

On to The October Project!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Not Guns, Nor Lead, But Men's Vices

The first illustrated "how-to" book for mining and metallurgy was written by the German Georg Bauer in the mid-16th century, and used from then to now; only minor changes were needed to accommodate fairly modern methods. ("Bauer" [Farmer] was Latinized to "Agricola", probably by his teachers at the University of Leipzig.) 
But Agricola was a teacher, philosopher and doctor as well as the world's first industrial publicist, and the opening of De Re Metallica ("Concerning Metals") reflects his philosophical bent. 
While re-reading it recently, I was struck by this passage in Chapter One. In the midst of a dissertation on the economics and politics of mining and the monetization of metals, Agricola diverts to make several points about the "evil" of metal weapons. It does not take much editing to apply his thoughts directly to today's debate on the "evil" of gun ownership. 
The curses which are uttered against iron, copper and lead have no weight with prudent and sensible men, because if these metals were done away with, men, as their anger swelled and their fury became unbridled, would assuredly fight like wild beasts, with fists, heels, nails and teeth. They would strike each other with sticks, hit one another with stones, or dash their foes to the ground. Moreover, a man does not kill another with iron alone, but slays by means of poison, starvation or thirst. He may seize him by the throat and strangle him; he may bury him alive in the ground; he may immerse him in the water and suffocate him; he may burn or hang him; so that he can make every element a participant in the death of men... From these examples we see that it is not metals which are to be condemned, but our vices, such as anger, cruelty, discord, passion for power, avarice and lust. —Georgius Agricola, De Re Metallica

So it is not explosives that carry evil, it is the suicide bomber who carries the explosives. It is not the knife in the hand of the chef that stabs a man, but the one in the hand of the murderer. And it is not guns that kill. In all these examples, it is the murderer's desire to kill which is at fault, not the instruments used to act on those desires. 

Notes for eBook Edition

The Kindle version of the book is available for free by the Internet Archive, with the quotation cited above at location 1268. 
This free version of De Re Metallica, however, is poorly formatted for an eBook, with no Index or Table of Contents. It has many OCR typos and footnotes inset in the text. 
The captions for the woodcut illustrations are essential to understanding their worth, but they are very difficult to read on the device, even with Zoom.
The best source for the serious reader is the paper edition.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Blasted Flies!

When late summer heats up the wine country, we get flies: fat, sticky, misery-making flies. They invade the restaurants, buzz around the windowsills making the cats go crazy, and persistently land wherever you don't want them.

You can shoo them, they just return (often to the same spot, over and over). You can swat them, but that just leaves a disgusting mess. If you don't mind serving yourself a helping of pesticides as well, you can spray them. 

Or you can invest a little target-practice time, and a few spoonfuls of table salt, and annihilate them!

We fell in love with the idea of the Bug-A-Salt, a spring-powered gun that shoots table salt and rips the wings off the pesky flying bugs. We apparently weren't the only ones, either—the company that makes them has been battling back-orders for the last month from the surge of business.

It shouldn't have been a surprise that they had received many orders: the gun is not only available for sale from the manufacturer's site, but also from Cabelas and At last, we got the notice from SKELL that it was on its way to us. (SKELL INC. is the company founded by artist Lorenzo Maggiore as a vehicle to bring his artistic creations to commercial life.)

Today, there it was on our doorstep, a long box stuffed with gun, apron and bottle opener. (We bought the "grill-master special".) It also came with a little note signed by creator Lorenzo, offering skill-building and maintenance advice, plus access to his hotline, and the admonishment "SHOOT EM DEAD MY FRIEND."

In two short minutes, we had it out and loaded, and were off in search of flies. But the word appears to be out; the flies have gone elsewhere. Not a single fly was anywhere to be found in the whole house. 

Aha! Not so, says my spouse. I found a dead one on the windowsill. Maybe the cats killed it, but I shot it just to see it jump. If it wasn't dead before, it surely is now. 

Well, okay, it was dead before, but it was fun to shoot it anyway! Now, what else* can we kill? 

*A reviewer advises that the gun can be used to kill mosquitos as well as flies, and even wasps and cockroaches, but that a close-in shot may be required to kill the bigger bugs. We shot spiders with it, and their still-twitching bodies hung quite convincingly in their webs.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sin, Virtue and Redemption in a Deeper Game than Baseball

I watched the movie The Natural again last night, and was struck anew by the deep themes within the story. Oh, yes, you can watch at the superficial, baseball-game level, and celebrate the winning homer when Roy Hobb's gone ball hits the scoreboard in a coruscating fall of sparks.

In that sense, the iconic baseball movie can be viewed as a piece of schmaltzy fluff, feel-good nostalgia. Critics of the movie have pointed to its almost cartoonishly-simple villains and heroes as evidence of its simplistic status. 

Many of the figures who inhabit this film are either obviously good or starkly evil. No question that The Judge is a black-hat, for example; he shuns the light of day. A spider at the center of his web, he is the embodiment of the cardinal sin (or deadly passion) of Avarice.

No debate either that Glenn Close plays a good girl, despite her unwed-motherhood. If there were any doubt, it is erased by the way the film garbs her throughout in white and in light. Not only is she Roy Hobb's redemption, she is also his Madonna.

Far more interesting are the ambiguous players, like Max Mercy, The Whammer, and Harriet Bird (the lady in black), and the redeemable characters of Bump Bailey, Memo Paris and Hobbs himself. It is through the development of these smaller sinners and weaker saints that The Natural transcends the cartoon.

Max Mercy (played by Robert Duvall) is a cynic, the embodiment of Doubt. Max is convinced that he is irredeemable—and therefore, so is everyone else. Doubt is a minor, venial sin, but it is just a breath away from the deadly sin of Despair. That Max has nearly reached despair is evident in his counsel to Hobbs, and also from the 
cartoons he draws before the event. He has no doubt that Hobbs will take the easy downward path, because Max himself would.

The Whammer (Joe Don Baker in a cameo), like Max (in whose company Hobbs meets the famed hitter), is a venial sinner. His Hedonism is just this side of the deadly sin of Gluttony—not the relatively innocent lust for good food and wine, sex, and other such bodily pleasures, but the far more grave equation of pleasure with Good. In fact, The Whammer is rescued from stepping over the brink from venial to mortal sin by a small wound to his pride: the loss to young Hobbs in a casual three-pitch contest.

The sins of Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) seem obvious. The lady in black murdered several other athletes, and attempted to shoot Roy Hobbs. But beyond the murders, Harriet commits the cardinal sin of Envy. She wishes to possess the fame of the athlete by removing him from life. Only Harriet will know that Roy Hobbs might have been "the best that ever was." Her desire is obviously twisted and sick—but all envy is sick and twisted. Harriet Bird slips that knowledge in under our guard.

Bump Bailey, who has accepted the bribes that Roy turns down, is a classic picture of little-g greed on its way to all-consuming avarice. Bailey wants it all: fame, fortune, a lovely woman, the semblance of virtue with the pleasures of vice. Bailey chases his final ball so fervently, he collides with an unyielding wall and dies. How explicit can a parable be?

Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) and Iris Gaines (Glenn Close) are presented as opposites. Memo dresses mostly in black. She is openly manipulative of the baseball players, though she seems to be directed by Gus (Darrin McGavin) in all she does. Her sins of lust are no greater in commission, really, than Iris's, though perhaps less innocent in motivation. Yet her major sin is Sloth. Memo does nothing productive; in fact, she sucks power and purpose away from the players with whom she becomes involved. Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) knows Memo is the problem, even if he cannot be specific. "Some people are just bad luck," he warns Hobbs.

That leaves Roy Hobbs. Robert Redford plays the central figure of this morality play perfectly, as the symbol of the redeemability of man—although in the past, in his glory as a young pitcher, Hobbs was guilty of sins in their venial measure, and in the present begins to make the same mistakes, in the end (with Iris' help) he is able to atone for past errors and regain glory.

The classic Western virtues are also displayed in the latter half of the film. Hobbs serves justice in delivering Pop Fisher from the false partnership with The Judge; he displays fortitude and courage to return as a middle-aged rookie to the game in which he might have been "the best there ever was." And although his temperance is tested by the lure of Memo Paris and the fast pace of the city, in the end, he chooses the simpler life, the ranch and fatherhood.

These lessons are not preached; they are not even made particularly explicit. Yet audiences have responded—we know good when we see it. Like Roy Hobbs, we do not always choose the good we see, but we do recognize it as good.

The message of The Natural is that, even years later, we can change; we can make the better choice. 

Man is redeemable.

Failure As a Design Consideration

 Engineers today... are not superhuman. They make mistakes in their assumptions, in their calculations, in their conclusions. That they make mistakes is forgiveable, that they catch them is imperative.
Henry Petroski has written a number of very enjoyable essays on the art and practice of engineering design. In To Engineer Is Human, he turns his gaze on a different and more serious aspect of engineering. In building structures and mechanisms, it is not enough to ensure success—the engineer must also "forsee failure" and design to avoid it.

Petroski looks at structures and designs that have failed, and also those that avoided failure. Along the way, he examines what we mean by terms like "strong enough," and why it doesn't make sense to overdesign in the attempt to eliminate the possibility of failure. He tells us how the collapse of the Hyatt Regency walkways in Kansas City in July, 1981 was related to the failure of "Galloping Gertie" (the Tacoma Narrows bridge) in Washington state four decades earlier. 

In much the same way as Petroski celebrated the design of everyday things like The Pencil, he discusses the way new materials change the way engineers could deal with the problems of design, and how these changes give rise to new methods for avoiding catastrophic failure. The chapter on the design of London's Crystal Palace (erected for the Great Exhibition of 1851) describes the methodical way in which the new structural design was tested, and how even individual members were tested before being included in the building.

A chapter on brittle fracture looks at buses, nuclear power plants, stainless-steel utensils and the Liberty Bell to explore how crystalline materials may be stressed beyond their capacity to bear. And in a chapter titled "Forensic Engineering and Engineering Fiction," Petroski refers to Nevil Shute, whose novel No Highway tells the story of a forensic engineer who sabotages an airplane he fears may be subject to fatigue failure, to prevent its flying before he can uncover evidence to substantiate his fears. Petroski feels this story reflects the real brittle-failure issues faced by the DeHavilland Comet, although he quotes Shute's own disclaimer.

This book is a work of fiction. None of the characters are drawn from real persons. The Reindeer aircraft in my story is not based on any particular commercial aircraft...  —Nevil Shute, author's note to No Highway
My favorite chapter, "From Slide Rule to Computer," looks at the reliability of numbers and our willingness to extend more credibility to them when they are computed by machine rather than "the human brain." (Although my enjoyment is perhaps as much for my fellow-feeling with Petroski that learning how to assign "sig figs" in order to calculate with a slide rule ought to be still a required part of engineering education.)

We all rely on the conscientious nature and diligent design of engineers as we go about our daily business. We literally put our lives in the hands of these men and women dozens of times a day. Petroski's work goes a long way to reassure us that, despite the notorious failures, the vast majority of structures and designs function safely, as they should. 

As they are designed to do.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Freedom and Its Not-So-Fictional Opponents

I enjoy the way science fiction novels will present a single cultural or technological change, and pursue the results of that change to its eventual conclusions. One of my favorite sub-genres shows a free society opposed to a socialist one.


L. Neil Smith's Pallas presents just such a contrast between those who live in a free society and their neighbors who do not.  

On the terraformed asteroid Pallas, most are free people living as they please, according to the founding document they all signed. That life includes hunting (and eating) the wildlife that was brought to Pallas for the specific purpose of being hunted. It includes the right to innovate, compete, and succeed as one is able—or to fail and starve if one is not able. 

All is not Eden in this paradise of freedom, however. A regimented farm enclosed within a Berlin-like wall houses the agrarian society of the GUMP: the Greeley Union Memorial Project, which hopes to show that manual labor and a meatless diet in a preachy communal setting will result in a better life for all.

The story takes off when Emerson Ngu, a rebellious child of the "ant farm" (as the free people of Pallas name the Project), makes it over the wall to freedom. His coming of age in the greater society of Pallas illustrates the paths each of us must take to become truly free, as L. Neil Smith presents that state.

The founding philosophy of the colony, which Emerson uses to guide his growth, comes from Mirelle Stein (the character is an an obvious homage to Ayn Rand) and Raymond Louis Drake-Tealy (a similar homage to Robert Ardrey, as the novel's epigraph makes clear.)

The controlling force at the "ant farm," on the other hand, is one-time Senator Gibson Altman, a remittance man exiled to Pallas by sexual scandal. Altman's control of the Project's populace is a good illustration of the Daniel Webster quote, "In every generation, there are those who want to rule well—but they mean to rule. They promise to be good masters—but they mean to be masters."

We may dislike the Senator, but eventually Emerson Ngu accepts that all three of these larger-than-life characters, Altman, Stein, and Drake-Tealy, have a hand in making him the free man he becomes.


I happened to read Freehold by Michael Z. Williamson just after re-reading Smith's Pallas, and thought it a slightly different illustration of freedom opposed by statism. 

In this novel, the free people, full citizens of the planet Freehold, are those who serve in the military. The statist society that opposes Freehold is back on Earth. 

In the course of the story, Earth attempts to invade Freehold, and the outcome (given the overwhelming numeric superiority of Earth) is expected to be suppression of Freehold. Unfortunately, the net result of Earth's "domestic" policies has been citizens (and soldiers) with less capability, responsibility, morality and worth than Freehold's citizens.

Add in that Freehold's populace are mostly currently serving or ex-military, and are defending their homeland, and you have the recipe for an outstanding story.

Each time I re-read Freehold, I see more dimensions to the characters. Yes, the people of Freehold are generally good (but consider Tom Callan and the "criminal" laborers Kendra supervises in the park). The invaders from Earth are presented as generally bad, or at best, clueless (but remember Kendra's friends in Earth's military who help her escape, as well as the opposing general at the end of the novel).

Just as in Pallas, the two opposed societies are presented as generally black-and-white—but this is consistent with the nature of the two societies described in each novel. 

The Freehold military reminded me of Israel's military, in that Israel is a real-world example of what the novel Freehold presents: hostile neighbors with military might who deny your homeland its right to exist, to chose a life and society based on freedom.

Freehold, with The Weapon and Rogue, also by Williamson, are some of the best pro-military, pro-freedom novels I have ever read.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Double Nickel

Foster homes and child abuse don't always go together, but Nickel has experienced the worst kind of abuse. His foster parents already have two children in their care when Nickel arrives, and eventually they introduce the innocent 8-year-old boy to their child pornography studio. 

Nickel, however, foils their plans, freeing himself and his two foster siblings from this slavery. Although we never learn what happened to the other two children, by the time he is 12 years of age, emancipated Nickel has set himself up in a solo household, and by courage and clever misdirection, manages to exist on his own.

How he does so is the basis of two extremely compelling novels by Aric Davis: Nickel Plated and Tunnel Vision.

Nickel Plated

Given his back-story, we can understand why 12-year-old Nickel didn't want to stay in the foster system, and we can also see why he would be slightly anti-social in his behavior. In a smart twist on fostering, Davis introduces a father figure (the boxing/jiu jitsu/EMA coach Rhino), whose lessons in discipline are sufficiently hands-off for Nickel to accept.

Details of this 12-year-old's life are also perfectly consistent with his age and his past: he gets around by bicycle, riding a sufficiently beat-up bike to keep it from being a target for theft. He tells himself to eat wisely, but then indulges in pizza pockets as soon as he gets home from the grocery. He brings in money by growing and selling pot from his backyard garden, and by trolling online for pederasts, whom he then blackmails for cash.

His main business, however, is working as a Private Investigator. His clients are desperate enough to employ a "child" to do their work, or perhaps they accept his argument that he succeeds because "no one notices a kid".

Child or not, Nickel is as hard-boiled as they come. He accepts that in himself: "It had been nice to have a real talk with someone, to take off that veneer and just be a kid. Deep down, I’m just a survivor, and that survivor has his own special set of rules. Sometimes, like tonight, that veneer slips a little, and I get to be normal."

Nickel Plated follows the 12-year-old through the ins and outs of a slimy underground world where children are commodities to be traded or discarded after use. In the process, we get acquainted with a loaded and unholstered weapon, the brain of a child who would never be a victim again.

Tunnel Vision

I finished Aric Davis' Nickel Plated with a strong desire to see what happens next for an emancipated drug-dealing 12-year-old who has dedicated himself to the defeat of child abusers. When Tunnel Vision appeared, I was ecstatic. 

Alas! the Nickel we meet in this second novel is revealed in the first few pages of the book as an older, harder, nastier version of the child P.I. I enjoyed in the first book. 

Nickel is now in his mid-teens, and has endured a stint at a nightmarish juvenile detention camp. Think about the kids of Holes, 16 years old and still at their desert labors, and you get some idea of what Nickel encountered at this camp.

From his term there, he has acquired a new ghost to join Nicholas and Eleanor from his childhood, and has redirected the righteous anger of his preteen years to the pot-sellers who deal his crop. I won't spoil the story, but we quickly learn this isn't the same shiny Nickel we met at 12.

This time, instead of pederasts and kidnappers, Nickel steps into a cold murder mystery. Almost as a sideline to solving the murder, he is also attempting to resurrect the pot business that sent him to the juvvie camp. And as the two issues braid together in his life, Nickel finds for the first time someone to whom he wants to reveal himself.

By the time I was halfway into Tunnel Vision, I was no longer missing the sharply sweet 12-year-old; Nickel at 16 is just as true to himself (eventually) as the boy we met in Nickel Plated.

I hope we will see him again.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Stealing Science

Caught up in the action and thrills of an Indiana Jones adventure, we sometimes forget that Jones is a thief. In fact, he is the worst kind of thief the archaeological community knows. He steals unique antiquities, sneaking them away from their sites; and then sells them to collectors, destroying forever the intellectual value they might have had in situ.

Gregory Benford's Artifact starts centuries ago, with a mysterious stone artifact being buried in a tomb. But each time we think we have this story pinned firmly into a genre, it morphs on us; first Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, then James Bond and Dr. No. 

With a flashback to ancient times, we learn the cube-shaped artifact is an object of power; we see that some of the grave-diggers were entombed with it. Fast-forward to present day (or rather, to a mid-1980s "present" with a still-viable Soviet Union). The artifact has been unearthed at an archaeological dig. Because the nominal leader of the dig, American Claire Anderson, has a beef with 
Kontos, the swinish Greek she has been saddled with as "co-director," she does not reveal that she and her assistant George have found the artifact. Instead, under a two-week deadline to finish the dig, she flies back to the States and seeks a metallurgist from MIT to come back to Greece and help her assay the stone of the artifact.

She meets John Bishop in his office at MIT, and hires him to do the job. John doesn't tell Claire he is a mathematician, not a physical scientist, for two reasons. One, he likes scuba diving, and hopes to be able to dive in Greece when this job is done. And two, he's really attracted to Claire.

Back at the tomb, George has finished disinterring the artifact, and found a pipe leading down to the sea behind it. John's test results are puzzling—they reveal a cubical cavity inside the artifact, lined with heavy metals. From an amber cone that projects from one face of the stone cube, they glimpse an occasional flash of light. A slight humming noise comes from the object, and it has an eerie feel to the touch.

When Kontos gets nasty and moves the deadline up to two days, Claire decides to publish her study of the artifact first. This will give her academic advantage to undo the lies Kontos has told about her. Unfortunately, Kontos finds out about the artifact, and expels all three Americans, keeping all of Claire's notes and drawings, John's data and equipment, and the artifact itself.

The three get away from the Greeks who are trying to ship them out of the country, and return to the dig for Claire's notes. By accident, they are locked into the tomb and the artifact is pushed down the pipe. John has to go down after it, then climb back up from the ocean to unlock the door. As they leave, they decide to take the artifact back to the States with them.

Up to this point, they assume they are working with an ancient artifact. When the MIT group begins doing tests in earnest, they discover that the stone cube contains a powerful natural magnetic "bottle" and the bottle contains a microscopic singularity—a black hole. The only trouble is, there should be a pair of them for stability. Unstable, the single singularity is producing sheets of gamma radiation, and gradually eating away at its bottle.

And the other half of the pair, left behind in Greece, will be eating away at the world on a least-distance path between it and the cube, trying to get back into the bottle with its mate.

Benford has woven several disparate elements together into this skillful tapestry. Archaeology and academic power-mongering fight with vigor 
(though with less blood), equal to the political and cultural battles of the Greeks who are striving to keep their antiquities in the country. Claire's feminism vies with John's southern views of femininity and family. And the MIT physicists and mathematicians struggle to define and contain this genie in the bottle.

Like David Brin's The Practice Effect and Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio, this is a book that vaulted the author into the ranks of science fiction's "Killer Bs." It is the best kind of science fiction there is, demanding your full attention, changing only one element, than asking what happens if this is true?

You can buy The Artifact for Kindle right now for just 99 cents!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Utopia Lost and Found

Utopia always goes wrong; the best laid plans, etc. is truth as well as a cliché. Sometimes it can take generations for the plans to go awry.

In Building Harlequin's Moon, a novel by Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper, the plan to build utopia goes off the rails right away for the John Glenn, a colony ship fleeing a Solar System filled with rogue AIs. They were supposed to come out at the planet Ymir side-by-side with another colony ship, ready to deploy nanotechnology to terraform Ymir into an ideal place to build a new Earth. Instead, their engines go out of kilter, delivering them to Harlequin.

Their only option is to assemble the material from Harlequin's rings into a moon, then wake the frozen colonists and lead them through terraforming the new moon, Selene. It will take generations of effort to re-create the supplies and fuel they need to go on to Ymir—which by this time, may be already terraformed by the crew and colonists from their sister ship.

It will mean centuries, even millennia, of effort. They must take care not to let the AI tools they have grow too intelligent, lest the same thing that happened on Earth occur in the Harlequin system. And there will not be room in the rebuilt ship for all the colonists on Selene when they are done.

How they balance the needs of the ship with the needs of the colony, the growing tension between the Earth-born ruling elite from the original ship's crew (who seem to live forever due to repeated freezings) and the Children of Selene (the short-lived colonists), and the dawning realization that Ymir might not be the last best hope for the human race after all, give this novel a strength that we haven't seen since Ringworld.

I had trouble getting into the novel; there is a confusion of flash-back and dreaming in the opening chapters that takes some deciphering. Once I had these sorted out in my mind, however, the remainder of the story was very engrossing. This is mostly due to strong characters. An Earth-born woman refuses to take take further restorative Sleep, Selene's Children are growing aware of the way they are being short-changed by the ship's crew, and Gabriel, the leader of the Earth-born crew and the teacher of Selene's Children, will have to make a drastic decision about the future of Selene itself. 

It is also absorbing because of Niven's strength in describing future technology and cosmic-sized engineering works. We are there for the building of a planetoid from what is essentially space-dust; we come along while the assembled moon cools and is made habitable. This story is even more enjoyable because all the engineering is the work of Man—no aliens lurk in the corners of the narrative. The closest thing to an alien is the deliberately-crippled AI pilot of the John Glenn, Astronaut, a character strongly reminiscent of Heinlein's Mike in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Larry Niven has a genuine talent for finding collaborative writers and nurturing them, to match with his other well-known talent: creating elaborate, but believable, technological cultures. With Brenda Cooper, he has written a worthy shelf-mate to Ringworld

Scaling a Downloaded Model for the Bukito Print Space (The September Project Part VI)

The 3D model I've had my eye on since before the printer arrived is in Thingiverse, Thing # 213990 (Octopus Tentacle Stand) by notcolinforreal, published in December last year. This STL file is just under 3MB in size.
This is an attractive design that looks nice in a single color, even white, and I plan to use it to support my Kindle at a comfortable reading angle. (My spouse calls it the Hentai Porn Kindle Holder.)  The dimensions of the stand are 210mm x 132mm x 69mm (about 8.25"x5.2"x2.7" high). 
The limits of the printer space for the Bukito are 5"x6"x5".
I plan to bring the downloaded model into SketchUp Make, scale it to fit within the Bukito printer space, and then save it back out again—probably as an STL file—so I can open it in the slicing application.

Adding Import STL to SketchUp Make

Checking on the SketchUp web site, I learn that there is an Open Source application—an extension—that adds the ability to import and export an STL file to SketchUp. I read through the reviews, comments and questions about using it from other users on the site, and come away worried that I am adding more issues than the extension will resolve.
In the end, I have no problems downloading, installing, and following the instructions to configure my enhanced SketchUp Make so I can import the TentacleStand.stl file. 

Importing the STL FileWHUH?!

Everything was going SO well, and then I tried to use the Extension, selecting File/Import and choosing the STereoscopic Lithograph file type. But once the file is selected, and OKed to import, whatever I click next brings up an endless wait cursor, and the title bar is relabeled: SketchUp Make (Not Responding).
Based on comments others had made on the SketchUp forum about this issue, I try the Run as Administrator option to relaunch SketchUp, but still see the same problem.
Maybe the fact that SketchUp wasn't Run as Administrator when I installed the extension is the issue. I disabled the extension, closed and relaunched SketchUp as Administrator, and re-installed the STL extension. Nope, same problem.
Then it dawned on me. This file is almost 3MB in size. I went back to Thingiverse, searched "simple" and found a model (a "fishy bag clip") just over 100KB in size. This STL file imports immediately. Another larger model bag clip, just over 1MB in size, takes about 5 minutes to load. Aha! Maybe I just have to wait longer.

I decide to start the Tentacle Stand import again, and then go do something else, letting it run until it finishes or the PC goes to sleep.

Success In Scaling

Yes, waiting did the trick. It took more than half-an-hour to load the Tentacle Stand Object Model, and 5 minutes of waiting through the "not responsive" status each time I tried to select the whole model. 
Each scale, move or rotate attempt took another 34-40 minutes. I was very happy I had spent the time to learn some basics of using the program before I began doing this—it would be painful to wait that long and then have to Undo because it wasn't what you wanted!
In the end, it worked, though. I now have a SketchUp model of the tentacle stand that will fit within the print space of my Bukito. I am not seeing the option to export it to an .stl file, though, but I remember reading something about that in the forum. Time for more research.
So far, I am thrilled and delighted with SketchUp Make, despite the wait time for the complex model.

Export to DAE File Will Work

The Cura slicer program that will send the model to the printer will not open a SketchUp model, but it will open a DAE file, and that is one of the file formats to which SketchUp will export. 
I open SketchUp with the intention to Export to DAE, and discover an Export STL option is now in the File menu. Not surprisingly, exporting via this option sends SketchUp into another "Not Responding" wait-state. Now, however, I'm willing to wait.
In just a half-hour, I could be printing my Hentai Porn Kindle Holder!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The September Project, Part V - We Have 3D Print!

In Part IV, we finally got all the necessary software downloaded and installed, only to find it inoperable due to a computer connection that didn't "exist". So today, once more into the breech, we try to get a first print going with our Bukito portable 3D printer.

Before I try my idea about powering up the Bukito to connect to the com port, I notice that there is an Arduino app on the desktop now. I open it and try connecting to the USB port with a Teensyduino option, and there it is. But launching Repetier-Host still shows the printer in a Disconnected state.

Okay, that's not it. We turn on the Bukito, and hear various motors power up, but the Repetier printer status stays stubbornly Disconnected. 

Suddenly, a driver download notification opens in the lower right corner of the screen. Printer connected on COM3, it tells us. VOILA!

We now have the option to select COM3 as the serial port in the Printer Settings, and save that setting to our "Bukito PLA on USB" printer. I will set up other printers for other filament types, so I can vary the temperature configuration. (Eventually we will add a heated bed to the printer as well, and that will require printer settings to change.)

With the correct port pointed out, we can now connect Bukito PLA on USB and the controls for the test flight and tramming process come alive.

First Noodle

Following the step-by-step instructions from Deezmaker is suddenly simple. It seems the settings we guesstimated yesterday are appropriate, because the test for homing on X, Y and Z axes goes off without a hitch.

If there is any issue with the instructions, it is that sometimes it is not clear whether the control cited in a step is in the Repetier-Host program or on the Bukito itself. We figure it out, though, with assistance from the online manual for the Repetier software, and my spouse's memory of discussions from the Deezmaker forums.

The moment we pop the Manual extruder control, getting a dribble of the white filament that was still in the machine, is magical. I can well understand why people are driven to preserve their "first noodle". 

We carefully set it aside, as well as the first red noodle of PLA from our own reel.

Tramming With the Downloaded Script

The second part of the test flight involves downloading the G-code file that holds the instructions for a sliced print. We thought it would start printing right away, but the first instructions send the nozzle to the right front corner of the bed, then pause until you set the bed vertical position to almost touch the nozzle in that corner. We tested with a piece of paper, which just slid between the bed and nozzle, with a palpable "friction".

Clicking the Continue Print button then moves the nozzle to the front left corner and pauses to allow a second adjustment. This corner needed adjustment—we shifted the bed too far from the nozzle at first, and spent quite a while backing it up to the correct position.

The tramming then proceed to the bed's back edge, and back to the front corners to verify that no additional adjustment was required.


With the red PLA filament loaded into the printer, we watched as the head moved around the bed margins. It was thrilling to see a line of red plastic appearing on the blue tape, forming a tight spiral, rounded corners on a rectangular outline. The line of plastic traces the outline of the solid shapes in the middle of the test flight print, and the cups began to rise from the bed.

The Repetier software does a good job of predicting the time required to print. Since we haven't mounted the extruder fan yet, we have deliberately kept the print speed low, but the whole first print still takes only 15 minutes.

What's Next?

The September Project is complete, because we've got the printer working. But there are some things we still want to explore, not necessarily in this order:

  • Mount the extruder fan so we can speed up the feed rate
  • Download (and scale for the Bukito) a 3D model from a library. I have my eye on a tentacle stand for my Kindle, which sits on Thingiverse as "213990"
  • Modify G-code to tweak a print
  • Figure out how to print from an SD card
  • Create our own 3D model using Trimble SketchUp (a simple one is a cookie cutter, a more complex idea I'll hold back as it may be commercially useful)
  • Develop a presentation incorporating 3D model creation, G-code controls, and production of prints, for delivery to middle-school or high-school STEM groups.
That last was our original "excuse" for getting the 3D Printer in the first place. I do not say motivation; the motivation was two people who both wanted to play with one ourselves.

I'll keep you posted.