Sunday, March 29, 2009

Presents from home

During the week I got a note from DSPS that I had a package, but I didn't get a chance to go pick it up until saturday. When I did, it turned out to be a bigger than I had expected, so I had to rent a truck to get it and call a friend to help me drag it upstairs.

it's books. It is a terrible load of books, collected for me by a few of my friends on Earth, mostly classics like Hemmingway and Kipling and Saki and Twain. Many are first editions, a few are signed. There's some good SF in there, and a few nice travelogues.

Pitiably, these are for sale all over the planet cheap because people have lost interest. Shame, really. But still: I have reading material for ages.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Weather on La-A

Due to an odd configuration of icecaps and seas, we have rain which occurs predominantly at night, here. It's nice to get a warm summer rain during the day, most times people stop working and go outside.

Anyway, it's raining outside. The cat dislikes it, so he sits under the bed and surls. I love it, I open the window next to my desk and listen to the rain and feel the moist air.

There's not much that will keep me from going out in the rain, and I have spent so much time out of doors in wet that my employer has gotten me a mil-spec computer that will withstand the abuse. I like being where I can smell the aromas the water brings in from our sixteen great lakes; each lake has its own smell- Ocean smells salty. Violet smells sweet. Deepwater smells faintly of gunpowder. You can smell the direction of the wind by the lake the smell comes from. A wind from the south, brushing across the surface of lake Howard, takes with it the hydrocarbon smell of the oil deposits that bubble to it's surface.

Tonight the rain smells like a fish. Not a dead, slimy gross fish, but a clean, wriggly, freshly caught fish. Lake Hugh is thick with little fish called Greaps that look and act like alewives that taste wonderful with a mustard sauce or in soup, and they give the lake it's distinctive aroma. When I was a kid, we stood on the shores of Lake michigan in Indiana and watched the ore boats wend their way through the forests of windmills. Seeing the unbroken surface of the lakes here is much more enjoyable.

The cat, catching the smell of the greaps comes out from under the bed and asks "I can eat some feesh nao? Want feesh."

I get up and open a can of greap flavored catfood, and place it on a paper plate and carry it into the office and put it on the desk. The cat sits down and begins to delicately eat the food. I peel the tax strip off a fresh bottle of Jamesons and pour a shot.

The warmth of the whisky feels good going down and I rub the cats ears a bit. "We're going to have to get a bigger place if you keep growing." Nothing. Some cats are, apparently, great conversationalists. Mine only whines about food and makes the spare bathroom smell funny.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Long week.

Actually, last two weeks. It's been hellish because of a looming deadline, and because we haev a contract with offworlders to do some of the work on this job, and they are as slow as molasses in January.

And on La-A, January is 42 days long.

ysterday, to top off a real winner of a day to begin with, I cracked my head on the latch of a rotary, and opened a good gash there until I could get a triage nurse to glue it back up for me. It's almost healed now, but at the time I looked like Frankenstein's monster. And last night, I had to watch helplessly as an offworld electron-chaser spent seven hours connecting up an ansible that would have taken me twenty minutes tops.

And then I had to redo most of it after he'd left because he got it mostly wrong.

So I did something I rarely do; I stopped after work for a brew to calm my nerves and reflect on the meaning of life- or at least well chosen hops.

Sitting at the bar feeling a little sorry for myself, contemplating the demise of some of my ill-chosen assistants, and missing my home just a little, a tall drink of water wandered into the bar.

She wasn't from La-A because she wasn't carrying open, though there was a little print on the back of her shirt from what appeared to be a small auto. She had that walk peculiar to the type of people who spend most of their time in artificial gravity, and her clothes were pure Earth.

So I sent over a beer. Matt, the bartender, was a little taken aback- I'm neither a flirt nor the kind of guy who looks for women in bars, but it made me a little less lonesome.

She looked, smiled, and hoisted her mug, and I smiled back, and did the same. I didn't think anything else of it, I just sat back and stared off in space for a while. As I sat there woolgathering, she came over and sat on a stool closer, with an empty stool between us still. That wasn't a surprise, few people want to get THAT close to me. But she had to say hello three times before I quit woolgathering and looked in her direction.

She named herself Bobbi and said she was a tech on a booster. She was from earth, and had been there only a few days earlier, really. I was a little jealous. I explained why, she made suitably sympathetic noises.

She told me a little about things at home, and I told her about tech she could expect to see soon. it was nice to speak to someone outside of my own head who wasn't ten inches tall and furry, and I had a nice time.

I gave her a Nik pen I had given to me about a year back, when I finished a job I was working on at the time. They're not expensive or flashy, but theyre an engineer's pen. One end is a mechanical pencil, the other either a fountain pen or a sharpie, depending on how you take off the cap. The trick is, they never run out of ink or lead- or at least I don't think they can. They MAKE the ink- and the lead- inside the pen. the ink I understand, it absorbs moisture from the air and uses dried concentrate- the lead I just haven't figured out yet. ANyway, I sent it back to Earth with Bobbi. She said she'd look me up if she ever had leave here again, and I hope she does. I hope she didn't mind that the pen glows with my name on the side in the dark.

Anyway, this morning I got a little package marked "Lupine Stores & Carg0" At first it looked like a little snowglobe when I opened it but it turned out to be a little climateblock. A block of lucite with a globe of the earth showing the real-time climate all over the planet, with a little cursor in the base that allowed you to highlight the weather conditions of any major city and quite a few minor ones. I smiled. I have it on my desk now with the current weather for Santa Claus Indiana proudly displayed.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


In the same way that almost nobody writes anything on bare metal anymore, hardly anyone writes low level code either, because groups of routines have been written that are adaptable to almost anything .

Oh, you still have to learn code, the way students once had to learn multiplication tables, but you fought through it and tried to forget it as much as you could.

Programming of controls has a lot to do with what you want them to do. it's not whwt they used to call "Artificial intelligence" but it's useful enough, for specific purposes.

Most of what people do is use prepackaged routines. Most of the routines are in the public domain, and they can be used by anyone. Some specific ones have to be licensed. I have a developers license that allows me to use practically anything, provided I get my customer to purchase individual titles before production starts.

So when I put a system like this together, it's as simple as putting on the headset and calling in routines. Putting them where they belong. Passing through the arguments that allow them to work properly. Testing the outcome.

Knowing how the individual machines function is vital. So is knowing what their limitations are. So it's not as easy as it sounds; though a lot of the footwork has been done, the ability to take all the individual pieces and make them a useful whole is like a jigsaw puzzle and a balancing act and a race to an impossible finish line.

Once in a while, though, there arises a situation for which there is no canned cycle. This happened friday as I was setting up a new system. I had the headset on and was directing traffic.

"Give me a 64 bit Hex/BCD convertor. yes, generic is OK.
Hook the output from that to a linear motion control to transfer the A parts to the first cell. Use an Appomatox or an Nframe. Link that to the drive at address"

"Use..... crap. WHat do I use to tell the first cell how to acquire the part?"

The net took my question seriously and started making suggestions "Scratch that. Hang on a bit"

I took off the headset and started digging around on my phone for a routine. As they scrolled by on the screen it began to dawn on me that there was nothing written for this, that the system was so new that no way had been established to communicate with it.

So I pulled out a keyboard and sat down to kick something together. The new system has all the hooks listed and it's not long before I have a suitable routine. I send off a copy to confirm the copyright, and put it in the data stream. Now everytime someone needs ot connect to this machine they'll use a Morgan 56.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Safety my ass.

For a lot of years, I have been working around equipment dangerous enough that it requires a lot of very specific talents, equipments, and procedures. Some of those procedures are particularly familiar to me, because I wrote them

Almost everyone in the business understands the formula

lg En = K1 + K2 + 1.081 * lgIa + 0.0011 * G

to calculate the incident energy, and

DB = [4.184 * Cf * En * (t / 0.2) * (610x/EB)]1/x (4)

to calculate the flash protection boundary, and there are specific proscriptions for the liklihood of arc flash. Sharp operators will tell you that the best bet is to err on the side of caution, and this is no bad advice. Safety clothing, procedures, and familiarity with the equipment are the real keys to going home in the same condition you went to work.

That being said, there is such a thing as overkill. For the last week I have been working on small helper droid communications with the big machines and big droids. They are adequately inexpensive that full ansibles are impractical, and they don't need to move but a few inches, so we used good old fashioned 1000 baseT. Yeah, for all you keyboard jockeys, Ethernet.

So I've found and purchased a set of crimpers on SkyBay, and even managed to find a couple hundred old crimp connectors. Category cable was harder to find in good shape, but I got the thirty or so meters that I needed.

So I'm standing in front of the cabinet. Not the main cabinet, mind you, that has all the high power stuff in it (all of which is of course intrinsically safe and don't even have to be cabinet mounted) but the comm cabinet. And one of the customer's safety assholes waddles up and gives me a ration of shit.

"You need to be wearing safety equipment to be working in a live electrical cabinet. Shut that and suit up, or I'll escort you out of the building myself."

This is a customer, and a big one. So I cannot explain to the safety asshole that she wouldn't know a hazard if it crawled up her ass.

So I shut the cabinet and suit up. An Arcflash suit, for those of you who have never seen one, is a featureless jumpsuit capped off by a large hood, including a nonconducting and flame retardant supplied air system. It's like wearing a bear.

To connect a comm cable.

So I do it, grumbling all the while, and get the job done.

And while I do, I use the above formula to calculate the danger of arc flash.

I have a pretty good head for figures, and I can calculate Pi in my head to about thirty significant figures before I have to start writing numbers down, but I ran out of decimal places.

In other words, the liklihood of me being subjected to an arc flash at +/-five volts at a few microamps are... well, I can't actually use this handheld device to type that many zeroes in a row.

At the end of the day, sweaty and in a foul mood, the safety asshole stopped by to pat herself on the back at her prudence and demonstrate her superiority to me. I endured her lecture until she pulled out the Morgan's electrical reference, and started tapping on the cover. "Can I see that a second?" I asked. She handed it to me and I opened it to the page where it discussed the hazards for comm connectivity. "here's the section for DataComm. It says you need Level Zero protection. Level Zero is a cotton Tshirt and a pair of cotton pants."

"I suppose you know more than the author of this guide" she smirked.
'No. I know exactly as much as the author of that guide. Would you like me to autograph it for you?"

She looked at me like the dumbass that she is, and I handed her a card. She compared the name on the card and the name in the frontspiece of the book, and stormed off in a huff.

I am surrounded by some of the finest engineers in the universe, and we are annoyed by some of the stupidest ones. After all, if you can't engineer anything yourself, why not act as an obstruction to those who can?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Join the club

I have been asked, so I did. There's a small range in my neighborhood, and when I rented this place it had a ten yard range with three stations parallel to the laundry room.

But I like to shoot things further away. So I've been competing at a local club, and I've often stopped in to help with range setup and teardown, putting up barricades for matches, that sort of thing.

Last month they asked me to join. THis is a private club which holds invitational matches, and it's a nice club not far from here. I will be the first non-military member. I feel as if I have been handed a great honor, to hang with servicemen and women who walked the walk. I will do my best to deserve it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Where I live:

Notwithstanding the fact that about 85% of the things people use day to day are shipped from here, almost nobody knows about La-a. Some of the people who LIVE here don't even know how to pronounce it.

On the earth, in pre-squirt days, people still looked up at the stars with wonder. A couple of companies actually went so far as to give themselves the responsibilities for assigning naming rights. Yeah, right. As if that made a hill of beans difference to anyone.

Problem was, companies like International Star Registry had made fairly detailed location maps of star locations, and had assigned names to the visible stars, and quite a few that were invisible to the naked eye. Once the squirt drives had been perfected and the cost associated with moving from star to star had been minimalized, the Star Registry was the only body with an accurate positional listing of many of the stars that had been visited. And a brief but flamboyant court battle made the names stick.

Fortunately, the odds were good, and a lot of stars with really horrible names had no habitable or mineable planets. Sure, some poor bastards got stuck with "James Earl Carter" and "Bart Simpson" but for the most part the systems just had simple names.

Our system was, painfully, not as lucky. We ended up La-a Williams. It's pronounced LaDasha. I kid you not. But we don't mind. We ship millions of metric tonnes of machines, can openers, barbecue grills, pocketknives, deodorant, window glass, and artifical limbs, among many other things. They all proclaim proudly: "Made on La-a". Six trillion people prounounce it "LA" "A"

We don't care. It pays well. At least we're not "dildo-1"

Monday, March 2, 2009

Range time.

I spend a certain amount of time at the range, like everyone here. Offworlders are often amazed by the number of short and long ranges here, and it's the rare neighborhood that doesn't have at least a short range. Most people have ten yard ranges in their yards. The sound of gunfire isn't common, though, because most people have supressors and noise cancelling equipment. And accidents are- well, on La-a people start shooting as soon as they can walk.

Which is not to say that people don't get shot. I have a bullet wound in my left shoulder, and I like it fine. I don't go out of my way to show it off, but I will roll up my sleeve if asked, and I buy shirts that can be rolled up easily.

A bullet wound- of a very specific type- is like a duelling scar here. To compete, you have to have an instructor certify you, and the instructor and you take turns shooting practically at one another. You stand directly next to his target, he to yours. At 100 yards, with a fine small caliber rifle using iron sights and cast lead bullets.

he can see your target, you can see his, but at these distances you have no idea how you're doing without a scope. To qualify you have to exceed a mimimum score, and then you can compete. If your instructor is confident you have exceeded HIS score, he has the option of taking a non-fatal shot at you. I shot a 100. Ten tens. With three in the X ring. He shot six tens, two fliers, and a nine. And he knew it. He picked out the fliers, and his last shot grazed my arm.

I shouldered my rifle, walked to the middle of the range,and shook his hand, the blood trickling down my upper arm. I grinned. The shot burned. I had him sign the wound and later had the sigiature tattooed in place.

People think with all the technology here we would use blasters and lasers and pulse weapons, but the truth is, so many geeks live here that there are about a thousand basement gunsmiths that make fine light arms in a tradition dead all over the universe.

I have tried my hand at pistol competition but I'm a duffer at my very best. My first love is rifle shooting, small caliber, single shot, cast bullets. An old world skill, useless except for the entertainment value.

Well,I'm entertained, anyway.