Lasers on Telescopes

For me, the phrase “lasers on telescopes” brings to mind super villains capturing top secret astronomical facilities in order to execute a nefarious plan. I think of Mr. Freeze capturing Gotham Observatory to build a giant freeze ray in the movie Batman and Robin. Perhaps a funnier and better example is Chairface Chippendale using a laser in a telescope to deface the moon with his name in the TV series The Tick.

Laser measuring tool (on yellow arm between black mirror covers) over the Mayall primary mirror.

In fact, lasers are used on telescopes. Perhaps the best known real-world examples are telescopes that use laser guide stars. This is a technique where astronomers fire a laser mounted on the telescope into the sky. The laser light is scattered by the atmosphere, but optics in the telescope correct that light back into the proper size beam and also correct the stars seen at the same time. We had a system like that at the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak run by CalTech. There was also a system like that at the 3.5-meter telescope at New Mexico’s Apache Point Observatory.

Now, these lasers are not ones that are likely to be co-opted for nefarious purposes by super villains. Lasers used for guide stars just aren’t that powerful. That said, they can’t be used with impunity. The artificial guide star laser at Kitt Peak was visible in the ultraviolet band and would interfere with optical telescopes also observing in that band. What’s more, I’ve been told Apache Point Observatory had to clear laser firings with the Air Force, who had a base nearby. The observatory’s laser wasn’t likely to shoot down planes, but we could imagine tragic results if a pilot happened to fly through a laser’s line of sight only to be blinded.

This past week, while working at the Mayall 4-meter telescope, we were also using a laser. In this case, it wasn’t fired at the sky, but the laser was mounted on the telescope’s mirror cell and fired at different surfaces on the telescope to get precise measurements. Now that the refit for DESI is nearing completion, the engineers need to make sure everything went back together as it was designed. They need to make sure all the new parts are placed in just the right place. If not, this is the time to make adjustments. Measurements of telescopes are important because they help to assure that astronomers can focus the telescope properly. Precise measurements are also critical to determine the proper weight distribution of the telescope, which in turn helps it track the sky precisely.

As it turns out, I also spent part of this past week working on an adaptive optics system a little like those laser systems I mentioned. However, the WIYN Tip-Tilt Module doesn’t actually use a laser. Instead, it takes precision measurements of an actual star and uses optics within the instrument to bring that star as close as possible to a precise point. I’ve seen it used to deliver incredible image quality with stars only 0.3 arcsecs across. To put that in perspective, star images with WIYN are typically more like 0.8 arcsec across. The size difference is the result of atmospheric blurring.

This all echoes something I’ve been saying in the past few blog posts. If something isn’t quite right, there are ways to fix it, even when its a multi-million dollar scientific project. By comparison, books are much easier to fix. It’s why beta readers and editors are so important to the writing process. They help us see places where we didn’t express ourselves clearly, made something work in an artificial way, or simply used the wrong word. It’s part of why reviews are so important. Reviews help customers, but they also help writers because they tell them what worked and didn’t work.

Over the years, reviews helped me refine my craft until I could write books like Owl Riders and Firebrandt’s Legacy. And yes, reviews are helping me shape the 25th anniversary edition of The Pirates of Sufiro, which I’m working on right now. I hope you’ll join me on a journey to one of the worlds I’ve created and, if you do, please leave a review to let me and others know what you thought. The titles in this paragraph are links where you can get more information about the books.

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The Hands of Fate

While reading the book of plays, Uncanny Encounters – Live! by Paul McComas and Stephen D. Sullivan a few weeks ago, I was reminded that Sullivan had written a novelization of the movie Manos: The Hands of Fate. The movie has been declared by people such as the writers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Elvira as the worst movie ever made. The movie fascinates me personally because it opens on El Paso’s Transmountain Highway and much of it is set in the familiar desert between El Paso and Las Cruces. It is a terrible movie and I’ve only survived my viewings by laughing along with hosts such as those I mentioned. So, I was very curious what Sullivan did with a novelization of such a movie.

I put the book on my Christmas list and lo and behold it arrived and I devoured it between Christmas and New Years. The novel takes a humorous, snarky tone and could really be seen as a companion to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version. It’s very self aware and has fun with the movie’s problems. That said, the book made me aware that Sullivan had not written just one novelization, but two. The other, Manos: Talons of Fate, attempts to turn the campy film into a serious horror novel. I downloaded it to my Kindle, and I must say, Sullivan does a fine job of using the movie as a basis for a chilling, Lovecraftian tale.

According to the book Huh? by Hal C.F. Astell, Manos: The Hands of Fate was the result of a bet made in a coffee shop between fertilizer salesman and insurance agent Harold P. Warren and Stirling Silliphant, a writer for the TV series Route 66. Warren apparently played a bus driver in the series and he bet Silliphant that anyone could make a movie and see it released. In fact, he started plotting the movie on the spot. No doubt that very cynicism that just anyone could make a movie is part of why people are happy to have seen it turn out so bad. However, despite that issue, Harold Warren had the tenacity to see the project through and complete it, something many would-be writers never manage.

What fascinates me about Sullivan’s approach in this novel is that he doesn’t alter the plot very much at all. Instead, he delves deeper into the characters’ heads and lets us understand why they are doing what they are doing. He gives the scenes more detail and depth while letting them play out very much like they did on screen. He does add a few things that don’t happen on screen, but he keeps that to a minimum. The result is a wonderful demonstration of the thin line that exists between a story that works well and one that doesn’t work at all.

Sullivan’s exercise in writing two novelizations of Manos: The Hands of Fate also interests me because it’s not unlike what I’m currently doing at my Patreon site. I’m presenting chapters of my novel The Pirates of Sufiro as they appeared in the most recent print version and giving some brief analysis of what worked and didn’t work, then within a couple of weeks, I’m releasing an edited chapter. While I certainly hope the most recent edition of The Pirates of Sufiro doesn’t descend to the level of the movie Manos: The Hands of Fate, it was my first novel and I don’t feel I did as good a job describing characters and situations as I could have. I also don’t feel like all the story’s “beats” hit where they needed to.

My goal with Pirates is much the same as Stephen Sullivan’s goal with his novel. I want to improve Pirates, but I don’t want to change it so far that it become unrecognizable. If someone picks up a different edition of one of the sequels, I still want them to be able to read with confidence that the same major events transpired in all editions of the novel. You can support me in this experiment at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. Please drop by and browse the posts. While many posts are reserved for patrons, several are free so you can get a sense of the work I’m doing. I hope you like what you see.

First Responder Training

This past week at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I renewed my first responder certification. As I mentioned in my Saturday blog post, observatories are in remote locations and bad things do happen. I’ve been fortunate enough that I haven’t had to deal with much in the way of criminal activity at an observatory. I’m often asked if I have ever seen aliens at the observatory. My answer to that is that the law enforcement agency I’ve interacted most with at the observatory is the U.S. Border Patrol.

That said, things can be bad enough without people engaged in illegal activities. I have had to treat an astronomer who was stung by a scorpion. I also know of a time a person on the mountain suffered a heart attack, though did not go into cardiac arrest. As I approach the age my father suffered a fatal heart attack, I find myself grateful that many of my co-workers know CPR and have been trained in the use of Automated Electronic Defibrillators.

Even without worrying about heart conditions, I have also had more than my share of accidents. About a month before my oldest daughter was born, I was working on a telescope when I accidentally knocked a 15-pound weight off a ladder and it fell right into my jaw, puncturing my lower lip. Luckily I didn’t lose any teeth. More recently, an elevator became stuck. We were able to open the door and I jumped to the floor below to go find a ladder to get my fellow passengers out. I managed to sprain my knee in the process.

At Kitt Peak National Observatory, once we dial 911, it will take 45 minutes for the closest ambulance to make it to the observatory summit. Many observatories are even further from emergency response. Having a staff where many people have first responder training means we can help each other and help visitors during emergencies.

I strongly encourage you to get first responder training if it’s at all available. I have to admit, I don’t always remember all the lessons from the videos and practice sessions, but the training does give me the confidence to follow instructions from a 911 dispatcher when I call. I’ve also found that in those rare emergency situations, I’m surprised by how much I do remember.

Another aspect of first responder trainer that’s important to me is that it gives me experience I can draw on as a writer. Aspects of both Kitt Peak’s remote location and the training I’ve received as a first responder have gone into such novels as The Pirates of Sufiro. The novel is currently out of print, but I’m about to launch into a full rewrite in preparation of a fourth edition at my Patreon site. My Patreon site also helps to fund this blog and I currently have an initiative to raise enough money to upgrade this to an ad-free site. Drop over to my Patreon site and read two free stories of my new collection Firebrandt’s Legacy. If you sign on, you can read the rest of the collection for free, plus you can see how The Pirates of Sufiro develops in its new edition. I bet you’ll even see some examples of how I put my first responder training to use in my fiction writing. My Patreon site is at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

Chargers

No, this isn’t a post about a football team that started in Los Angeles, moved to San Diego, then returned to Los Angeles. This past week, I operated the WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. About halfway through the week, the charger circuit on the telescope failed. The WIYN is a telescope with a 3.5-meter primary mirror, making it the second largest aperture optical telescope at the observatory. This large telescope needs to track the sky as smoothly as possible to get the precise measurements we make of astronomical objects. Because of that, the motors don’t actually work off a power cord plugged into the wall that could be subject to brown outs or power spikes. Instead, we have a charger circuit that charges up a set of small batteries. The telescope drives actually are powered by the batteries, shown in the photo to the left.

Although I have some experience with electronics, I’m not actually an electrical engineer. When failures like this occur, my job is less to make a repair, but to see if I can find a way to limp along for the rest of the night and continue to take data in spite of the trouble. However, the circuit is so fundamental to the telescope’s operation and the problem bad enough that I couldn’t even limp along. We had to close up and wait for more expert help in the daytime.

Fortunately, our expert electronics crew was able to repair the charger circuit in less than a day, so we were back on sky and taking spectra of galaxy clusters the next night. What has always amazed me about the charger circuit on the WIYN telescope is that a bank of relatively small batteries can move a 3.5-meter telescope. Those batteries need to move the telescope in three axes. The obvious axes are altitude and azimuth. As WIYN tracks the sky, images rotate in the field of view, so there’s also a rotator that keeps north up in the images.

The charger system strikes me as a metaphor for my approach to seeking inspiration for my writing. The charger system takes current from the wall in whatever form it exists, uses it to charge batteries, which change the form of the current to produce good telescope motion. I take inspiration from my work in astronomy, from the books I read, the movies I see, and my time interacting with friends and family, allow myself to process that through my brain and turn that into the stories and novels I write.

I have taken variable star data with telescopes that use wind-up clock drives and that has helped to inspire and inform clockwork gadgets in my steampunk stories. I once helped an astronomer to take one of the deepest images of the center of our galaxy in the infrared, which helped me to imagine a voyage to the center of the galaxy in my Space Pirates’ Legacy novels. Working late nights on a lonely mountain top in meandering buildings informs my horror. If you’re a writer, I’d love to hear about some things that have inspired your writing in the comments below.

Explore the worlds I’ve created at http://www.davidleesummers.com

Evolution of the Lightning Wolf

As a writer, one of the things I most appreciate is my family’s support. My family enjoys going to science fiction and steampunk conventions and is willing to help me out. They’re there to help me through the inevitable bad review and cheer me on when I get a good review. They enjoy many of the same shows I like to watch for research and inspiration. They’re also extremely creative in their own right. My youngest daughter, in particular, likes to create things inspired by my writing as well as books and movies I like. A couple of years ago, she created this interpretation of Larissa Crimson’s lightning wolf from my Clockwork Legion novels.

In the novel Lightning Wolves, the army attempts to recruit Professor Maravilla to help build more effective war machines to help repel the Russians, who have invaded America. The professor, however, has had enough of war machines and doesn’t want to go. Larissa, a bounty hunter who has apprenticed herself to the professor, agrees to go in his place.

Like most real-world inventions, the lightning wolf is a hodgepodge of things Larissa had on hand at Fort Bliss in the novel. She adds the engine from an ornithopter to power a safety bicycle, which holds one of the army’s lightning guns between the handlebars. In effect it’s an armed, steam-powered moped. In the novel, few people take this frail-looking contraption seriously until they see it in action and see the damage it can cause. It ultimately proves itself an effective weapon against much larger machines.

She returns to Professor Maravilla and the two join forces against common foes in the last act of Lightning Wolves. In many ways, Larissa and Maravilla are a family, even if they aren’t related by blood. Their relationship is fraught and sometimes tense. People on the outside don’t always understand it, but when one is in trouble, the other will be there to help out. In essence, my family is not just there to provide moral support, but they do provide the experience that helps me build effective characters and relationships on the pages of my books. As writers, we should always keep a lookout for those things around that we can use on the page.

Like most inventors, Larissa is not content with what she built. As the series proceeds, she tinkers, improves, and takes the lightning wolf to new levels. We see the upgraded version both in my novel Owl Riders and in my short story “Fountains of Blood” in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone, which is coming out in a mass market paperback edition this fall.

If you would like to meet the family who created the lightning wolf and see this invention grow, change, and evolve, I invite you to give the Clockwork Legion series a try. You can learn about the books at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Coco

This past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to watch Disney/Pixar’s film, Coco. It tells the story of a boy who wants to be a musician, but music is banned in his family of practical shoemakers because his great-great grandfather abandoned the family to pursue his own musical dreams. The boy, Miguel, gets transported to the land of the dead on Día de los Muertos and learns the truth about his family history along with ways to bring the power of music back to his family. I was warned that it was an emotionally affecting tale. I teared up anyway. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

Día de los Muertos has held a special place in my heart for a long time now. Although I’m ethnically some mix of German and Celt, my family has lived in Nuevo México for more than a century. Día de los Muertos is actively celebrated in Mesilla and Las Cruces—and I live next to a cemetery. Family and their stories have long been important to me as a writer and Día de los Muertos is all about remembering family and their stories.

Listening to the film’s commentary track, it was clear the filmmakers took care to represent the celebration as authentically as possible. This pleased me, but it also gave me something to think about. A week before on the NPR food show, “Milk Street Radio,” a chef talked about the fallacy of creating culturally authentic dishes. The reason he described it as a fallacy is that what foods and cooking appliances are available in a region change and shift with time. What’s more cultures shift as people migrate and as technology changes. The food he cooks in America today is closer to what he grew up with than the food cooked now in his hometown.

Día de los Muertos is very much a part of Southern New Mexico’s culture and the film’s depiction is almost identical to what you’ll see here. Almost is one of the keys. While people celebrate at the cemetery, we also have ofrendas on the Mesilla town square. While you see marigolds like they had in the movie, we see a lot of other flowers as well. We even say “Día de los Muertos” while other people say “Día de Muertos.” Both have been used to describe the celebration going back to the sixteenth century and both are used in the movie. The former is literally “Day of the Dead” while the latter tends to be a more specific reference to All Souls Day.

In recent years, I’ve often seen culture erected like a wall to keep outsiders at bay. I prefer it when culture exists as a bridge to allow others a glimpse into the important aspects of people’s lives. That’s why I liked Coco. That’s also why I set a pivotal scene at a Día de los Muertos celebration in my novel Owl Dance. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html

I’ll wrap up today’s post with a poem I wrote back in 2003 that gives you a glimpse of the importance of Día de los Muertos to my family. Christina Sng published it in her zine Macabre the following spring.

Pan de Muerto

All Soul’s Day—The Day of the Dead—
Picnics and parties at the cemetery.
Gravestones decorated with flowers,
Pinwheels, photos, favorite toys,
Candies and pan de muerto—
The Bread of the Dead.

My daughter and I make the bread.
She beats the eggs—even in death,
There is the memory of new life.
I add the orange essence—memory
Of the orange trees Grandpa—
My dad—loved so much.

Together, my daughter and I add the
flour—grown from the soil where
Grandpa now rests. Together we
Kneed the dough—making a
Connection across time.
Grandfather to father to daughter.

We set the bread out with a photo,
Some Halloween candy, and many
Happy memories. Sleep that night is
Restless. There is a chill in the air.
Morning comes and a chunk is gone
From the Bread of the Dead.

Tips for a Successful Author Reading

On Friday, I had a great time giving a reading at Potions Lounge, a speakeasy bar on Bourbon Street in New Orleans managed by Marita Crandle, owner of Boutique du Vampyre. I love reading from my work and, in recent years, I almost always sell books as a result of my readings. Unfortunately, readings are not always well attended, especially at venues such as science fiction conventions. The reason is simply that many readings don’t prove to be memorable experiences and people skip them for other events. Below I present a few tips that have worked for me when giving readings.

Don’t read from the book

This may sound counterintuitive, but allow me to explain. Often at a reading, the first thing I see someone do is pull out a copy of their novel and start reading from it. It seems like a good idea because you’re reading the words as they were published and you’re showing off your book. The problem is that font sizes and bindings often mean you have to hold the book closer to your face than ideal. It also can be surprisingly easy to lose your place, especially if you look up to make eye contact with the audience.

I took a lesson from my days in choir. I print out my reading with a nice, easy to read font on one side of the paper and put it in a notebook. It allows me to hold the book further away, making it easier to look up from time to time and make eye contact. If you want to show off your cover on what you’re reading from, you can print out a nice copy and slip it into the plastic sleeve on the front of the binder. Better yet, bring your book and prop it up on a table while you read.

Go slow

When I’m nervous, I start talking faster. When I talk faster, I stumble over my words and my words become non-distinct. My mom’s family is originally from Texas and when I catch myself doing this during a reading, I summon my inner Texan and slow down. By this, I don’t mean that I drawl my words, but I take my time with each word and make sure I see and say each one in turn. It’s actually quite hard to go too slow during a reading.

Practice beforehand

I spend months and perhaps even years with a manuscript before it’s published. Therefore I must know it inside and out. Right? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean I can read it well. Again, taking a lesson from those choir days, it doesn’t matter how well you think you know a story, practicing always helps. A rehearsal session also allows you time to experiment with varying your voice for different characters. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, just work on making sure you learn to read their dialogue as naturally as possible. Some readings enforce time limits, especially if you’re reading during the same session as others. Practice helps assure that your reading will fit. Make sure you practice going slow!

Read a complete piece

I don’t necessarily mean that you should read a novel from cover to cover or even a complete chapter if your chapters are long. However, your reading should have a hook, some development, and some kind of satisfying conclusion. Let your audience feel as though they’ve had a complete storytelling experience.

Lagniappe

This is a term from Southern Louisiana and it means “a little something extra.” Always give your audience some kind of lagniappe. A baker might give you a thirteenth doughnut when you order a dozen. When I give a reading, I try to do something a little extra and fun. The photo above is from WesterCon in Phoenix where I showed a rough cut of the book trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt during my reading. At Bubonicon, later that year, I read from my new anthology Kepler’s Cowboys and invited fellow contributor Gene Mederos to read with me. He showed off some of the artwork he’d created inspired by the stories. I’ve done Halloween readings where I give out candy. I even did a space pirate reading where we sung sea chanties. A lagniappe doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t even have to cost you anything. What it should do is let the audience know they’re special and appreciated.

Are you an author who has given readings? If you have additional tips, please feel free to share them in the comments below.