William Shatner in Space

Earlier this week, William Shatner took a ride into space aboard a rocket built by Blue Origin, a company founded by Jeff Bezos, best known as the founder of Amazon. The rocket launched from outside Van Horn, Texas, a town about two and a half hours to the southeast of my home in New Mexico. As a long-time Star Trek fan, I thought it was great that Shatner, who brought the role of Captain Kirk to life, had the opportunity to go into space for real. What’s more, at 90 years old, Shatner is the oldest person to go into space. I’ve long thought, I hope to be doing as well as William Shatner when I’m 90!

Glen de Vries, Audrey Powers, William Shatner, and Chris Boshuizen in Space. Image courtesy Blue Origin

As a kid, when I first became aware of Star Trek, the last Apollo missions were still flying. I remember thinking that Star Trek was just another document of a real mission into space. My parents soon explained to me that it was all just make-believe, but in a way that excited me just as much. That made me pay attention to the opening credits and notice those writers who made up Star Trek’s vision of exploring space. In the end Star Trek’s captivating writing helped to launch my careers in both astronomy and writing. So, it should come as no surprise that I watched Shatner’s journey from the moment he entered the rocket until he landed again in west Texas near the launch site.

Some have criticized Jeff Bezos for investing his personal wealth in space flight rather than causes to help the planet. He’s argued that developing space flight is one way to help the planet. I think he has a point. Developing space technology has a long track record of creating other technologies that help us on the Earth. I also believe there’s no reason we can’t work on solutions to problems on Earth while developing space technology. We have no shortage of people. Among the challenges are training and directing them to places where they can do the most good.

This all noted, I don’t feel I can let Bezos completely off the hook. According to Yahoo Finance, Bezos’s income is somewhere in the ballpark of 110 billion dollars per year and he invests 1 billion of that in Blue Origin. To put his income in perspective, you only have to multiply minimum wage by a single digit to get to my income. You have to multiply minimum wage by six digits to get to Bezos’s income. Over a million people could be employed at better-than-minimum wage with his income alone.

There are plenty of reports that suggest working conditions for front-line workers at Amazon are not great. As an author I do business with Amazon. In the last year and a half, I’ve received several packages in poor condition. They look as though they were rushed out the door without care and some books have arrived in unsellable condition. This makes sense if workers are being rushed to get things out the door without concern for quality of service. I’ve also had to call Amazon at times to resolve issues. Most of the time, their representatives are very helpful, but I’ve had at least two instances where I asked them something that clearly went “off script.” They promised to call me back and simply didn’t. Again this smacks of putting perceived efficiency ahead of customer service.

Given what’s reported of Jeff Bezos’s salary and what that must imply for Amazon’s total profits, there must be room for Amazon to improve salaries, make conditions better for front-line workers, and improve service. Star Trek suggested that humans would be ready for space exploration when we learned to appreciate our own diversity and treat our fellow humans with respect and dignity. Sometimes making the planet better starts with how corporate executives and upper management treat and pay the people who are making them the money that allow them to invest in cool things like space exploration and who make it possible for someone like William Shatner to visit the final frontier.

Main Mission

A week and a half ago, I shared the model of the Starship Enterprise’s bridge that I built. It seems I’ve been in the mood to build science fictional command centers lately, because I also recently completed a model of Main Mission from Space: 1999. This was, in part, inspired by my enjoyment of Big Finish Productions’ audio version of the series, which in turn led me to re-watch the first season of the 1970’s television series.

As for the model itself, I discovered it when looking up videos that might help with some points of assembly on the Enterprise bridge model. Some videos that turned up in the suggested play list discussed the Space: 1999 Moonbase Alpha kit, which includes the show’s first season command center, Main Mission. As it turns out, I remember seeing an early version of the Moonbase Alpha kit from when I was a child. I also remember asking my parents to buy it for me. At the time, they turned me down. It was probably for the best. That was during the height of my slap kits together as fast as I could, without really caring about the quality of my work! I discovered MPC had released an update of the Moonbase Alpha kit in the not-too-distant past and they aren’t hard to find for decent prices on eBay, so I bought one.

MPC Moonbase Alpha Model Kit

As of this writing, I haven’t actually built the Moonbase itself. I may share that at a later time, but I have tackled the miniature of main mission. Like the Enterprise bridge, it’s not a perfectly accurate replica. Two problems stand out at first glance. First, there’s a spiral staircase in Main Mission. In the show, it was a simple staircase with landings. Second, Commander Koenig’s office is too short. In the show, he had a lower level with a conference table and several chairs. It was actually a rather spacious workspace. The biggest challenge of this model is that it’s rather small, so painting details and adding decals took some care and patience. Still, I managed it. Here’s a look in from the top.

Main Mission from above.

I rather like the details in the decals they included. The big screen is a very accurate version of what was shown on television. The globe in Commander Koenig’s office was another selling point for me. It was such a memorable prop, I was delighted they included it in the model, even if painting it was a challenge. The continents don’t really match up with anything on a real globe, but they do give the impression of the continents as they looked in the show.

Main Mission from the side

The second view shows a more oblique angle, so you can see the computer banks on the lower level. Again, these were good decals. It also made me realize how similar the main mission and command center sets were in Space: 1999 and the earlier series produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, UFO. As with my Enterprise bridge model, one of the most fun elements was painting and placing the people. I tried to imagine something of a story in progress. I have Commander Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell speaking in the commander’s office. Dr. Victor Bergman is running in to tell them something. We have Paul Morrow, Alan Carter, and Sandra Benes sitting at consoles. One challenge was whether to depict the televised Main Mission, or as I imagine it might be in the audio. On television, the computer officer is David Kano. We see a person that could be him standing by the computer. In the audio, David became a woman named Dashka Kano. I have a woman that could be her standing near one of the Main Mission doors.

Main Mission and the Enterprise Bridge

This final image serves two purposes. It shows the Main Mission model with its roof panels in place and it also shows the model compared to the Enterprise bridge model. As you can see, the Main Mission model is a much smaller scale. One of the reasons I decided to get this model is that the Enterprise bridge model was pretty plain on the outside, so sitting on the table, it’s not very attractive unless you look inside. The Main Mission model makes a nice compliment on the shelf.

At some point in the not-too-distant future I hope to build the actual Moonbase part of the kit, but for now, it’s time to get back to writing.

The Enterprise Bridge

In 1975, soon after the animated Star Trek series aired, the company AMT released a model kit of the Starship Enterprise’s bridge. I remember building that kit, but it was eventually lost to time. I know my patience and painting skills wouldn’t have done it justice. I also remember that two things disappointed me about that kit. First, it wasn’t the complete bridge. A few stations were around the outside were removed. Arguably, this made it easier to display on a shelf in such a way that you could look inside, but I was enough of a completest to want the whole thing. The other problem was that the original kit didn’t include Spock’s scope. This is that gray viewer Spock looked in to gain vital plot information. My understanding from newer websites is that it is, in fact, some kind of external viewing scope, probably with some sensor display overlays. The kit also didn’t include the library computer module on Spock’s station.

The kit was re-released for Star Trek’s 25th anniversary in 1991. The new version had more accurate decals. Both versions had figures of Kirk, Sulu, and Spock, but the new kit featured a re-sculpt. This version still didn’t include Spock’s scope or library computer. The kit returned in 2013. This time, they included all the consoles and Spock’s scope along with much better decals. This version still was missing Scotty’s scope on the engineering station. Yes, Scotty had one of those mysterious viewers, too! It was also missing the library computer module.

Late last year, after watching the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, which featured the return of the classic Enterprise I thought it would be fun to build the Enterprise bridge again and I looked for the kits. I soon learned the 2013 kit was hard to find and expensive when you could find it. The 1991 kit seemed the easiest to obtain. After watching a couple of weeks, a tempting eBay listing appeared. Someone offered two of the 1991 kits for less money than one kit alone. The only catch was that the seller didn’t guarantee the kits were complete. I decided to take the seller up on the offer. I figured I should be able to cobble together a complete bridge from two incomplete kits. It turned out, the kits were all but complete. I’ve only found one piece missing. I decided to turn the two bridges into the complete bridge.

An important part of this process was making better replicas of the science and engineering stations. I obtained some polystyrene plastic strips and sheeting from a model supply company and built my own scope and library computer module on Spock’s station. In the photo below, you can see the upgrades right after I applied a coat of gray paint. The station on the left is the version without the upgrade. I also built a scope on the engineering station.

Another feature of the old bridge model was that it had so few people and they weren’t great likenesses. I did like this 1991 kit’s people a little better, but the bridge never really felt complete. It turns out, there’s a 3D printing company called Shapeways that sells additional crewmembers for the Enterprise bridge. My wife and daughters bought me a set of crewmen to add to my bridge for Christmas. Here they are before painting.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of turning two of the 1991 bridge models into one complete bridge model is that there are two small stations on either side of the main viewer in the front that aren’t duplicates, but mirror images of each other. I considered taking one of the full size stations and cutting it, but I would have had to modify the detailing around the viewer over the station itself. I was saved by a change made for the animated series. In the animated series, they replaced the small port-side station with a second elevator door. Now, all of the plans for the bridge from the animated series, show a narrower entry into the front turbolift than the rear one, so I thought I might have to modify the second turbolift door. It turned out, the only things I had to modify were the floor panels and and the wall panel to the port side of the main viewer. Here are the two doors in my completed model.

Completed Enterprise bridge with two turbolift doors. Note, the engineering station has a scope!

I thought it was great fun to see that the Enterprise bridge actually could have two full-sized doors. It always seemed a poor design that there should be only one exit from the bridge. I will note, some blueprints of the Enterprise indicate the door next to the communication station attaches to a tube you can see on the outside of the bridge on the complete model of the ship. Personally, I don’t think an elevator shaft on a ship like the Enterprise would be that exposed, so I could be believe there’s space around the outside of the bridge to allow two turbolift cars. The next photo rotates the view, so you can see the finished science station in place.

Enterprise bridge model from port side stern.

Of the figures in the bridge, Kirk and Sulu are the two that came with the kit. All the other figures are the Shapeways figures. The AMT kit did come with a Spock, but I liked the Shapeways version with the iconic pose of Spock looking into the scope. A fun part of adding the people to this kit was telling a story with the characters’ placements. It looks like Kirk and Sulu are in conversation while Scotty is conducting some repairs. Meanwhile Spock and Lieutenant Jones are consulting on a scientific problem. McCoy is listening in to both conversations.

One last view of the Enterprise bridge

One final feature to point out, I added a floor to this bridge. The original kit leaves that spot around the helm/navigation station and Kirk’s chair open. A small piece of sheet plastic allowed me to give the bridge a more finished look.

This was a fun project. It took a little longer than my usual model build because of the modifications, but in the end, I’m pleased with how it turned out.

How I Botched the Acetylcholine Test

I am a textbook introvert. As many sites on the internet will tell you, this is nothing unusual. All it really means is that much as I find interactions with people necessary and even rewarding, I can also find them draining. This would seem to be true of anywhere from 30-50% of the population. An upshot of being an introvert is the holidays can be especially draining with parties and gatherings. You would think I wouldn’t have found this year as draining given that gatherings have been discouraged. In fact, I didn’t go to any in-person events. While I did go to several online gatherings, as I noted in High Tech New Year’s Eve post, those were all pretty comfortable affairs with people I know well.

As a writer, I’m interested in what motivates people. Over the years, I’ve been fascinated to learn how much our brain chemistry affects who we are. I’ve found several articles that suggest that the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and dopamine play a strong role in who is an introvert and who is an extrovert. Simply put, introverts seem to thrive more on acetylcholine which makes us feel good when we turn inward. We feel gratified by long periods of time focused on a single task. Extroverts thrive more on dopamine, which can get released when you have positive interactions with others, such as a phone call that pushes your career forward or a strong romantic engagement.

A beautiful, quiet moment – the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn as seen from outside the WIYN 3.5-meter Telescope.

Now, I’m an astronomer, not a neurochemist, so I can’t vouch for how accurate this is. For that matter, I’ve come across some articles that suggest that dopamine and acetylcholine are far more intertwined in the brain than my simple description above would suggest. Still, it does mesh with my experience of really enjoying quiet tasks where I work by myself for long periods of time. It probably goes a long way to explaining why I like to write. So, I suspect there is some truth to something about my personality liking acetylcholine.

So, how did I botch the test? First off, I should explain that this post’s title is a reference to the classic Star Trek episode “The Immunity Syndrome.” In the episode, Mr. Spock has to fly a shuttlecraft into a giant space amoeba to save the Enterprise. While he’s there, he’s supposed to conduct some tests. Of course, he saves the day and everyone is happy, but Dr. McCoy points out that Spock didn’t do everything right. He tells Spock, “You botched the acetylcholine test!”

To this day, I’m not sure how Spock botched the test. I “botched the test” at a more personal level. At the moment, my work days at Kitt Peak National Observatory start around 4pm with a Zoom Meeting with various project collaborators. This meeting usually only lasts a few minutes, but then resumes again around 5:30pm with those collaborators who are observing. The Zoom meeting then lasts all the way until sunrise. Now, I’m not talking or interacting with the collaborators the whole night, but they are often interacting with each other and I do have to pay attention to plans for the night. I have no problem with this, but it can keep me from engaging in long, deep periods of concentration.

Also, I had planned a nice quiet period between Christmas and the New Year. I wasn’t scheduled to be at the observatory and I arranged a break from a collaborative creative project I’ve been involved in. As it turns out, I got a call on Christmas Eve from one of my editors, telling me notes on a story would be arriving that night. In short, the week turned into an intensive, albeit productive and gratifying, session whipping a story into shape for publication. I’ll tell you about that story in Saturday’s post. Once that was done, I had the nice New Year’s Eve that I talked about, then went back to work for more long observing nights with their accompanying Zoom sessions. Needless to say, I reached the first break of the new year feeling pretty wiped out.

I was suffering what some people know as an “introvert hangover.” For me, this takes the form of almost every interaction, no matter how benign, getting on my nerves. I try not to get to this point, but it does happen sometimes. Fortunately, we’re a family of introverts and we do our best to take care of each other when this happens. Also, I’ve been able to have some quiet time at the end of this most recent break from the observatory and I’m starting to feel myself again.

I hope your new year is off to a good start and you’re doing your best to stay healthy and well.

Learning from Loss

In 1976, when I was in elementary school, my teacher taught us about elections by having some of the students “run for office.” Of course, we weren’t running for any real political office, but the idea was to make campaign posters, have a debate, and let the class vote on who won. I ran for senator and thought I would be a shoe-in. Of the two people running, I was the one known to be the “smart kid.” I remember making some great posters with great slogans. In the end, I lost that election and I was devastated.

One of my friends came up and presented a hard truth to me. This friend did like me, but couldn’t vote for me because the other kid talked a lot more in the debate. I pointed out that the other kid made promises they couldn’t keep. My friend noted they actually said they would do something while it wasn’t clear I would do anything. Looking back, I realize that part of why I failed on that occasion was my own introverted personality. I wasn’t comfortable speaking to groups, so I didn’t say everything that was on my mind. More to the point, I learned to cope with the loss and move on. I didn’t get bitter. I didn’t say the other kid cheated. I knew I’d lost fair and square and I learned what I would need to do should I ever choose to run for a real elected position.

Losing is a powerful, albeit painful teacher. Whether one loses an election, a sporting event, or a competition of any sort, you can learn from the experience and do better. In fact, it’s such a great teacher that I’m hesitant to trust anyone who tries to tell me they never lost and that they succeed at absolutely everything they ever attempted. What’s more, the older they get without losing, the more I worry because I know the first real loss they face will be all the more difficult.

In the 1990s, I started reading through A. Bertram Chandler’s space opera series about John Grimes. Growing up as a Star Trek fan, I really enjoyed these books. John Grimes was a character much like Captain Kirk. As I read, I came to the novel The Big Black Mark, which is a novel about Grimes screwing up big time. He actually gets booted out of the service and has to find a new career. At that point, Grimes suddenly became a much more interesting character to me than Captain Kirk and it was precisely because he lost and had to learn from his mistakes and become better. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a Star Trek fan, but I find Grimes’s journey a bit more interesting.

I took this to heart when I wrote my Space Pirates’ Legacy series. The Pirates of Sufiro is about Ellison Firebrandt coping with losing his life of being a successful pirate. In the next book, Children of the Old Stars, his grandson makes a blunder when attempting to communicate with an alien race invading the galaxy and must start his quest all over again outside the military. I wrote these books when I was young and I hadn’t experienced as many losses as I have at this point in my life. One reason I’m revising them for new editions is that I’m better able to tap into the emotions that go with loss and moving on in new ways.

In the end, losing an election or a competition doesn’t make you a “loser.” It’s how you cope with the loss that demonstrates your true nature. I hope you’ll join Ellison Firebrandt and John Mark Ellis on their journey’s of loss and redemption. You can learn more about the Space Pirates’ Legacy series by visiting: http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#pirate_legacy

Recharging the Spirit

My routine during much of this COVID-19 pandemic has involved getting up early in the morning and taking a three-mile walk in my neighborhood before settling in for work at home for the rest of the day. This month, I have returned to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory in a mode, we hope, is as safe as possible. When I returned to work, it was amazing to have the sense of little time passing and working in spaces just as familiar as those at home. As someone who enjoys traveling and seeing new things, this has been a challenging time.

Because of this, my wife gave me a terrific birthday present. As soon as my first shift at Kitt Peak finished, we made plans to visit the Chiricahua National Monument in Southeastern Arizona. I have driven just north of the monument on I-10 to and from work for a little over twelve years and I’ve passed the turnoff to the monument many times. However, I have never before taken the time to visit. In a pandemic when we we’re discouraged from gathering and where outdoor spaces are safer than indoor, this seemed an ideal time to visit. I’m glad we did. We started our visit at Massai Point, which gave us a wonderful view not only of the rock formations the Chiricahua Mountains are noted for, but a look back into New Mexico.

Massai Point Overlook, Chiricahua National Monument

On the recommendation of the ranger, we decided to hike the Echo Canyon Trail. Unfortunately, when we drove over to the parking lot, we found it full. After a quick look at the map, my wife and I realized the Massai Nature Trail connects to the Echo Canyon Loop trail. So we returned to Massai Point and started our hike.

Rhyolite pillars

The distinctive pillar formations of the Chiricahua began their life when a volcano erupted in the region 27 million years ago and spewed ash over 1200 square miles. The ash compressed and has been weathered by wind and rain. The Echo Canyon loop trail gives a good view of these pillars and takes you through countryside where you can see grottoes looking into and through rocks. With our little addition, we ended up hiking 4.3 miles. It wasn’t bad in light of my routine 3-mile hikes in the neighborhood, but still a little challenge since there was more up and down than my nice circuitous path through the neighborhood.

Because we were in the area, we decided to visit some nearby historical sites as well. We stopped by the grave site of gunman John Ringo, most famous for his involvement as a member of the Cowboy faction in Tombstone, Arizona in the events leading up to and after the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral. We also took time to visit Fort Bowie. This was my second visit, but my wife’s first. When I first visited, it was a spur-of-the-moment visit on my way to work one shift. It was also monsoon season, so I ended up making the hike very fast. This time, we were better able to take our time and take the ridge trail that gave us a good overview of the site. As it turns out, Fort Bowie had two locations, which you can see in the photo below. You can likely make out the foundations of the later Fort Bowie on the left in the photo below. A little harder to see is the smaller, original encampment, only used for six years, on the hill to the right.

Both Fort Bowie Locations

Fort Bowie features in my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders. In the novel, I imagine the Chiricahua Apaches end up capturing a mining machine from the Clantons, also famous from their involvement in Tombstone, Arizona. With the help of machinists in Mexico, they replicate the mining machine and turn them into war wagons. Using them, they’re able to capture Fort Bowie, putting them into a position where the United States government is forced to negotiate with them. You can learn more about the novel at: http://davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html

Election Day

Today is election day in the United States. I hope by now you have already voted if you’re legally entitled to do so. If you haven’t voted, I hope you’re able to get out and safely cast your ballot today.

I don’t spend much time here or on other social media networks talking politics. That’s not because I don’t think elections are important. Quite the contrary, I think they’re very important and I pay careful attention to what elected officials are doing from the local to national levels. One reason I don’t discuss politics much on social media is that as an employee of the national observatory, I’m asked to assure that there’s no implication that the observatory endorses my personal beliefs. Because I do spend time on the web as something of an unofficial ambassador for the national observatory, I feel I must be especially careful.

Another reason I don’t share much about my personal political beliefs on social media is that it’s far too easy for people to lash out with a knee-jerk response the minute they see something they disagree with. I’m generally happy to discuss politics with you face to face and have a thoughtful dialog. I’m less interested in a shouting match from the relative anonymity of a keyboard and screen where no one seriously considers the other person’s point of view.

I am also somewhat reluctant to share personal political beliefs online because I have encountered situations where I have shared an opinion about a particular political issue and someone immediately assumes they understand what I believe about everything. I think this is a symptom of the lock the Democratic and Republican parties have on American democracy.

At a theoretical level, I can understand how a strict two-party system could work well. First, imagine two parties who each hold the country’s well-being first and foremost in their hearts. Each of them brings solutions to issues they care about to the table. They discuss those issues and come up with a compromise that may not be perfect and may not even satisfy everyone, but moves things forward and, at least, improves things for everyone.

The problem is that a feedback loop has arisen. As a legislator, one states a position. If everyone understands that position is an ideal that may move toward a more moderate position, things are fine. However, when people feel betrayed by compromise, they expect legislators to fight tooth and nail to get exactly what they promised and no different. The legislators are then backed into a corner and don’t feel they can compromise.

Unfortunately, I don’t see a clear path out of this feedback loop, at least in the near future. While I think it would help to have a couple more parties in the mix to put more ideas on the table, I think the ultimate issue is that people have to realize that government’s job is not to give one set of people their way all the time. Government’s job is probably best stated in the preamble to the United States Constitution: “…in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

At Kitt Peak National Observatory, we’ve just gone through annual job performance reviews. In a sense, elections are a performance review. We do not work for the president or our legislators. They work for us. As their managers, we need to keep in mind their job is not to do exactly what I tell them, or you tell them, or our neighbor down the street tells them. Their job is to do the best they can for all of us. Your job is to be a responsible manager and let them know how they’re doing by voting.

Rhythms and Transitions in Life

This pandemic year of 2020 brought us a long, hot, dry summer in Southern New Mexico. Usually we get some relief when the monsoon rains come in July and August, but this year, the monsoon only made a few fleeting attempts at getting started. During the long, hot summer, I fell into a regular daily rhythm. I woke up in the morning, ate breakfast and checked my email, then took a three-mile walk through the neighborhood where I plotted out my goals for the day before the temperatures climbed back over 100 degrees. I would then come home and set to work. I usually wrapped up in the late afternoon when dinnertime rolled around. Dinnertime was generally enforced by my daughter who had just graduated from high school.

All in all, this has been a healthy life rhythm. I’ve been getting regular sleep and exercise and I’ve been making a real effort to make healthy diet choices. This has paid off for me. According to the scale at home, I’ve dropped fifteen pounds this summer.

The campus observatory at Northern Arizona University

As the summer comes to an end, I find myself going through several transitions. My daughter has moved away to college. So far, her school, Northern Arizona University, has done admirably well at keeping any COVID-19 outbreaks from occurring on campus, so it looks like she’ll be away until winter break, which begins this year starting on Thanksgiving weekend. A cold front moved through, breaking the streak of hot weather. The forecast indicates temperatures will heat up again, but right now, we’re looking at 80s and not 100s. Also, I’m writing a new longer work, plus starting edits on another novel. What’s more, there’s word that Kitt Peak National Observatory plans to transition to having more staff on site as soon as local authorities give approval, so I’m on alert that I may begin shifts at the observatory again soon.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that I often do my best writing first thing in the morning before I’ve had any significant interaction with other people. In short, the story flows without the clutter of other life business getting in the way. If I wake up, have breakfast, then sit down and write about 500 words, I have a much higher chance of continuing writing later in the day. Even if I don’t, I at least have the satisfaction that I completed that much. Once that’s done, I then check my mail. From there, I usually get at least one work task done and then go for my walk. All in all, it’s still a healthy rhythm, but one that may shift if I do indeed add observatory shifts into the rhythm.

These thoughts about life rhythms and transitions at a time I’m starting new writing and editing projects also has me thinking about rhythms and transitions in storytelling. I’ll dive into that subject in Tuesday’s blog post. In the meantime, remember that you can learn about my books by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

New Year’s Eve at Kitt Peak

Earlier this week, I rang in the new year while on the job, helping observers commission the DESI spectrograph on the Mayall 4-meter Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Looking back, I see I rang in eight years of the last decade at the observatory. So, working on New Year’s Eve is getting to be something of a tradition for me.

Working at the observatory on New Year’s Eve is much like working on any other night of the year. It all starts out with me evaluating the weather. In the photo, I’m standing in front of the Mayall, watching the sunset. Throughout the week I had watched a forecasted storm for the night get downgraded to the point that we expected reasonable observing conditions. The night actually arrived with dark clouds and light snow. Not only was this unwelcome for observing, but New Year’s Eve was the last night of my shift and I didn’t relish the idea of driving on snowy roads.

The poor weather didn’t keep us from our commissioning work. On an instrument where 5000-robotic fibers must be precisely aligned with targets on the sky and then send the light from those targets to ten spectrographs, there’s still plenty of work that may be accomplished with the dome closed. We started with some spectrograph calibration tests, trying to answer whether it matters where the telescope is pointed when we calibrate the instrument. There was some concern about whether or not twisting of fibers at different telescope orientations might make subtle changes to the light going through them and affect the measurements we hope to make. This is important to understand and characterize before we start making measurements.

Another job we had was to test a camera that looks at the fibers on the telescope. That’s how we know the fibers are on the correct objects. We can test this camera because DESI includes some fibers that can be illuminated. This means the fiber view camera can see the position of some fibers even when we’re not looking at the sky. The telescope itself is big and flexes as it points around the sky. Understanding how objects appear on the fiber view camera depending on where we point is also an important job. We can do a lot by pointing the telescope in the closed dome with the test fibers illuminated.

Testing a new, complex system also uncovers software bugs and errors in procedure. The lead software developer on this project is fond of using barnyard sounds like a chicken clucking or a cow mooing when an error occurs. So, these sounds do occasionally intrude into our work, which means the software people need to debug code or help observers refine procedures. This is also productive work for a cloudy, snowy night. I’m also convinced that I need to find a way to work barnyard noises into some future high-tech science fiction space opera!

At 10pm, we tuned into the live feed from Times Square in New York to watch the ball drop while we worked. At midnight, we took enough of a break to toast the new year with mugs of coffee. Kitt Peak National Observatory is on the land of the Tohono O’Odham, so no alcohol is allowed, even if we weren’t working.

When the decade started, I thought of myself as “the temp” on the operations staff at Kitt Peak. I returned to Kitt Peak after nearly fifteen years to help the observatory with a staffing challenge and stabilize my income long enough to achieve some personal goals. Ten years later, I’ve achieved most of my goals, but I still think of myself as “the temp.” It’s an attitude that serves me well.

In the current political climate, I can’t guarantee my job will always be funded so I don’t take for granted I’ll have this job for an indefinite period of time. More importantly having the attitude of being “the temp” assures that I always feel free to speak my mind when needed and avoid self censorship, which is important in a job where I’m responsible for the safety of visitors. Also like any good temporary employee, I want to stay in the good graces of my employers, so it assures that I always try to do my best and constantly hone my craft.

As one decade finishes and another begins, I’m thankful to have a good and interesting job expanding humankind’s knowledge of the universe, but I also stand ready to take on whatever challenges that universe decides to throw at me in the coming decade.

My Time in the Collective

About four months ago, my primary care physician referred me to my cardiologist because he was routinely detecting premature ventricular contractions. When my cardiologist examined me six weeks ago, he ran an EKG and could detect none of these so-called PVCs. So, he decided I should wear a “Mobile Cardiac Outpatient Telemetry” monitor or MCOT for a month. The MCOT is a rechargeable sensor that plugs into a bandage with electrodes. The whole thing connects via Bluetooth to a mobile phone that in turn sends data back to BioTelemetry, the company that makes the device. To be honest, I spent the month feeling like Jean-Luc Picard in that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where they made him part of the Borg Collective.

August was a challenging month to wear this thing. Because I had traded shifts at Kitt Peak with a co-worker, I was scheduled to be there two weeks in a row. What’s more, that was the time I traveled to Bisbee for the Steampunk Invasion. A week after that, I traveled to Albuquerque for Bubonicon where I worked at the booth and spoke on panels.

The monitor I wore needed to be recharged every five days. When that happened, I removed the electrode bandage, shaved that part of my chest anew, and put on a new bandage. A bigger logistical challenge was the monitor’s requirement to stay in cell phone connection with BioTelemetry. This was the part that really made me feel like part of the “collective.”

It never ceases to amaze me how much it’s now taken for granted that we will always be in cell phone communication range. The problem is, I work on a remote observatory with radio telescopes. We don’t have cell towers close to the observatory because they interfere with radio observations. We do have some limited WiFi capability now, but the MCOT monitor didn’t give me the option of utilizing that. So, I got to spend much of my two weeks finding places where I could get it to connect to its data server and transmit its data before the phone complained at me that I had been out of cell range for too long.

The most emotionally challenging part of wearing this monitor when I did was that it happened right around the time I reached the very same age my dad was when he died of heart disease.

While wearing the monitor, I got to learn how far these devices have come in the last fifteen or so years. One of my co-workers had to wear an early version of a cardiac monitor when she was a child and the whole thing was like a body suit. I imagine she felt even more like a member of the Borg Collective when she wore it than when I did!

Earlier this week, I learned the results of the monitoring. In short, I do seem to have the occasional premature ventricular contraction. They seem to occur most often when I’m under stress. This would imply that my primary care doctor is more stressful for me to visit than my cardiologist! By themselves, at the rate they occur for me, PVCs are not especially dangerous. I did learn by paying attention and comparing notes with my cardiologist how to recognize them, so I can alert a doctor if I notice their rate increase or become more severe. The experience of speaking to my co-worker about her cardiac monitor experience reminds me how far heart care really has come in the last few decades.

Still, I’m glad to be free of the collective and hope I don’t get assimilated again any time in the near future.

Of course, paying attention to technology like this helps me think about technological change as I write my science fiction and my science fiction-infused steampunk. If you find this blog of interest or just want to help support my writing endeavors, I encourage you to support my Patreon site at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.