Return to the Grand Canyon

In May, my youngest child celebrated her 20th birthday. As a geology student at Northern Arizona University, she asked for a trip to the Grand Canyon as her present. Unfortunately, all the campsites and hotel rooms were already booked when she made her request, so we booked a date at the earliest chance we could get a campsite for three nights in a row. That proved to be the second half of July, which is often the hottest time of the year to visit the canyon. However it proved to be much nicer than the heat wave we’ve been enduring in Las Cruces, New Mexico. We stayed at the Desert View campground on the eastern side of the park on the south rim of the canyon. As with all of the canyon, it’s quite a picturesque location. A notable feature is the Watchtower, a building designed by architect Mary Colter in 1932. Unfortunately, climbing to the top of the Watchtower has been prohibited since the beginning of the 2020 pandemic, but the area around it is still wonderful.

Desert View Watchtower at the Grand Canyon

The Watchtower has a gift shop and rangers are available for questions. Early in our stay, we consulted with the rangers about some good trail options for our abilities and gear. As the title implies, this wasn’t my first visit to the Grand Canyon. I’ve visited five times before and hiked into the canyon most of those times. I even hiked all the way to the Colorado River along the Tanner trail in July 1983. That was a challenging hike that took three days in very hot, dry conditions. We certainly weren’t up for that challenge on this trip, but the rangers did make some very good suggestions. We took two of them.

The first of our hikes took us out to Shoshone Point. This hike takes you through a pleasant, wooded trail up to a large picnic area on the rim of the Grand Canyon. According to the National Park Service website, this is the one place at the Canyon you can reserve for a private event, such as a wedding. The area provided great views. I enjoyed hiking out to a nearby hoodoo and taking some photos from there.

Hoodoo at Shoshone Point

Just before we left for the Grand Canyon, I received an email inviting me to submit to a steampunk anthology. I don’t want to share too many details yet, partly because I don’t think believe this is a completely open call and partly not to jinx my own chances. What I will share is that ravens need to be part of the story. At first, I was a little uncertain what I would do with ravens. While camping, I remembered that in Owl Dance, Professor Maravilla set up an outpost at the Grand Canyon to test his ornithopters. We then revisit this outpost at the beginning of Lightning Wolves. What’s more, ravens are all over the place at the Grand Canyon. So the trip actually helped me get the ball rolling on thoughts for a story proposal.

Raven visiting our campsite

The steampunk/historical vibe helped us choose our other hike. We decided to try the Grandview Trail to Coconino Saddle. This is one of the older trails and back in the nineteenth century was used by miners who worked at the Last Chance Mine on Horseshoe Mesa. The first part of the trail takes you 1000 feet down into the canyon over the course of a mile. If you do the math, that tells you that the trail averages a 20% grade in that section. Talk about an intense work commute! The mine at Horseshoe Mesa actually produced rather pure copper ore. However, it was so difficult to get out of the canyon, that the mine was never all that profitable. So the owner build Grandview Lodge up on the rim. This was one of the earliest tourist destinations. Soon after it was built, though, the Grand Canyon Railroad went in to carry visitors from Williams, Arizona to the El Tovar Lodge on the rim. Unfortunately, the El Tovar Lodge is a good 27 miles from Grandview! In the end, the Grandview Lodge closed and no longer exists.

The steepness of the Grandview Trail actually helped give us a nice view of the canyon’s geology. It also proved to be a nice trail in that not many people hiked it. We started about 8:30am and we out by 11:00am, at which point, the day was getting very hot. Still, it was a nice way to experience both some spectacular views and some of the canyon’s history. The photo below shows me just a little beyond Coconino Saddle with the canyon behind me.

Hiking Grandview Trail

Time will tell whether the inspiration I took from this trip to the Grand Canyon will result in the sale of a new story. If you want to see how the Grand Canyon has inspired other steampunk stories I’ve written, don’t miss the first two volumes of my Clockwork Legion series, which are available in print, ebook, and audio! Get the details at:

Confronting Change

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed working with the Hydra spectrograph on the WIYN Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. It’s a piece of instrumentation that allows astronomers to observe up to 90 objects simultaneously during one telescope pointing. The WIYN telescope can see one square degree of the sky at a time. Hydra has a set of optical “buttons” which can be placed on a metal plate at the position where an object will be in the field of view. These buttons send data to the spectrograph two floors below via fiber optic lines. The device that places these buttons is a robot, which resembles the claw from crane machine. It picks up each button from a parked position and puts it where it belongs.

Sticker on Hydra’s side

This type of multi-object spectrograph is somewhat common now, but Hydra was one of the first of these types of spectrographs built in the early 1990s. In fact, the instrument is older than the WIYN telescope and I helped to commission the instrument in its first version at the Mayall 4-meter. Precision machines like the Hydra gripper suffer a lot of wear and tear in 30 years, so a little over a year ago, Hydra began an upgrade process. The engineers worked with Prod Design and Analysis in El Paso, Texas to upgrade the gripper with new technology. The folks at Prod were struck by how much the gripper resembled a crane machine’s claw and added the sticker you see in this first photo.

Hydra Control Rack

As you might imagine, I’ve become quite familiar with Hydra, working with it off and on for almost thirty years. However, making major changes to the instrument meant learning new procedures. The original Hydra gripper was an analog device that “knew” where buttons were by counting steps using a device called an encoder and then remembering those steps to go back and pick the button up again. If there was some electrical noise or a mechanical problem that caused the count to be less precise, it could miss picking up the button. The upgraded Hydra also uses encoder counts, but it has added new programmable logic controllers and video analysis. It goes to the button, takes a picture, analyzes that pictures and then adjusts it’s position, if needed, to get the button. All this new logic has meant that we have a new control cabinet in the telescope to house electronics. The hope is that this will make positioning more accurate. However, it has meant learning new ways to monitor the process of the gripper at work and recovering the gripper if problems occurred.

This past week was one of the first times I’ve had to use the upgraded Hydra without one of the engineers on hand in case problems occurred. I made sure to review the manual, because it had been several months since my introduction to the upgrades and I reviewed the troubleshooting procedures. The first night of observing started out quite smooth. We had four field setups without any problem whatsoever. Then on the fifth field configuration, a heart-stopping problem occurred. The Hydra control program crashed while the gripper was carrying a button to a new position. Of course, these buttons and their attached fibers are all very delicate and if Hydra forgets the button’s position, there’s a risk that the attached fibers could get tangled. This could prove to be a very expensive problem.

In the old days, a problem like this automatically meant going into the dome, which is a cold proposition on a winter night! Then with a long stick , carefully reaching into the instrument and releasing the button from the gripper jaws, which allow you to open the instrument. After that, you’d have to manually place this fragile, optically sensitive button and fiber back into its stow position. In short, it’s a delicate procedure to do when you’re cold and on a lift in a dark dome!

The new Hydra Handpaddle

Now we have a handpaddle, which lets us talk to the gripper directly. I went to the Troubleshooting guide, refreshed my memory and followed the instructions. For the most part they worked. I was able to control the gripper and set the button down in a controlled way. Unfortunately, we’re still working out some bugs, so I still had to open Hydra and check the button’s real position, but it was a much quicker, safer operation.

Confronting change in procedures that had grown familiar and routine was definitely scary and a little challenging. The things that helped me manage my discomfort were focusing on the familiar parts of the routine, reviewing the new procedures before starting work, and then when a problem did happen, I took a deep breath and used the instructions and my experience to solve the problem the best I could. This past week, the upgraded Hydra moved from a machine that presented me with a little anxiety to a machine I look forward to understanding better.

2021 Holiday Season

As we kick off the 2021 holiday season, it strikes me that I’ve been back to my “new normal” work cycle for a little over a year now. Kitt Peak National Observatory had been closed from mid-March 2020 through the end of October 2020. During that time, I worked from home on upgrades to our operation manuals and served on a committee, which developed a plan for safely reopening the observatory. Since November 2020, I’ve been at work following that plan. When I’m at work, I’m alone in a control room interacting with others over video conferencing software.

The New Normal: Alone in the Console Room

We’ve also been minimally staffed for nighttime operations in the year since the telescopes have been back online. One member of our team found a new job and moved on while we were closed. Fortunately, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, we were able to find and hire a new first-rate operator. It’s been a challenge training a new person while maintaining physical distance, but we’ve managed. However, it has meant that I haven’t had a proper vacation in that time. I did take some vacation time to help move my daughter into her dorm room at the beginning of the semester, but I took advantage of a period when the telescopes were closed for maintenance.

Making Dinner in a Tiny Kitchen

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my wife and I decided rather than have our daughter travel home for the holiday, we would take the holiday to her. It was a nice time. We prepared a lot of the Thanksgiving meal in advance and finished it off in our daughter’s tiny dorm kitchen. The food itself proved very good and we had fun enjoying a card game with our daughter and one of her friends. While traveling, we see lots of front line workers, from the staff at our hotel, to gas station attendants, to grocery store clerks. It’s occurred to me that, like me, lots of these folks have also been going full-tilt for much of the last year and a half and I wonder how many have been able to take some time off. These people remind me to do my best to be kind and patient this holiday season.

While on the Thanksgiving trip, I found myself, as usual, being inundated by Black Friday ads. As a business owner, I considered whether or not to make some Black Friday specials available this year through I ultimately decided not to make a big push. In part, I know there are plenty of people looking for your dollars at this time of year. Also, because my wife and I were both on the road, I knew we couldn’t fulfill orders right away. What’s more, I have several editing projects in process this holiday season and wanted to focus on getting them done right, but also wanted to leave some time for family at the end of the year. As I noted, it’s been a busy year and time has been at a premium. Still, I hope you’ll consider shopping at this holiday season. Even at regular price, indie books are inexpensive, yet unique gifts and when you buy them, you’re contributing to the royalty stream of some great authors, who will be encouraged to write more awesome things for you in the future. I appreciate and am thankful to all of you that have supported our publishing ventures in the last year and look forward to bringing you more great stuff in the weeks and months to come!

Birthday Reflections

Today is my birthday. The day comes with mixed emotions, as I know it does for many adults. Today, I’m delighted that I get to spend the day at the TusCon Science Fiction Convention in Arizona with friends and fellow fans. Also, I received a nice gift from my wife, a set of digital comic books, which I hope to read and then blog about in the near future. Despite all that, birthdays make it hard to escape thoughts of growing older and mortality. Still, I’m delighted to know that I share a birthday with one of my literary heroes, Robert Louis Stevenson.

Celebrating my third birthday with my grandma

This week, I was curious about birthday celebrations and looked up some articles about them. They seem to have their roots in ancient ceremonies marking the births of certain gods. In Ancient Egypt, the birthdays of pharaohs were celebrated as a way to equate them with the gods. Over time, birthday celebrations came to be fairly commonplace for national rulers along with certain other rich and powerful people. Most other people wouldn’t routinely celebrate their birthdays until around the middle of the nineteenth century.

Several different things came together to make birthdays an occasion to celebrate. As Europe and the United States moved into the Industrial age, keeping track of time gained importance. People had clocks and calendars in their homes and time became much more regimented as people went to work in cities. As medical science advanced in this period, special note was taken of how people changed as they aged. The number of years one had lived became a way to measure a standard of growth in children and then a standard of overall health as adults. People kept track of their birthdays and began to note how old they were.

Another thing that happened in the nineteenth century was that families started having fewer children. I’ve seen it suggested that around this time, children became seen less as commodities and resources and became more cherished as individuals. Even by this time, some bakers in Germany had come up with the idea of marketing cakes for children’s birthdays and the idea would eventually travel to America.

At this point in my life, my birthday is a good excuse for a fine meal with family and a few friends. I’m perfectly happy to enjoy a piece of good cake for dessert. I look back on the years that have passed so far and hope I’ve learned from my mistakes. I look forward to new challenges and discoveries in the years ahead and hope my children, who I cherish, continue to prosper. Of course, the best birthday present you can give an author is to read one of their books. You can find mine at If you’ve already read one of my books and loved it, please leave a nice review. Trust me, that’s something that would make a fabulous birthday gift!

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:

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: