Remain Calm No Matter What

This is a drawing my wife did of me at the telescope which a neighbor said looks exactly like me. There’s a story here somewhere but I’m not sure I want to write it.


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Penguin and the Caped Crusader

                                Penguin and the Caped Crusader

       Better known as the Soul Nebula, IC1848, Constellation- Cassiopeia

click here
©2008-2013 Richard Murray

Science Fiction Stuff:

The total exposure time for this image was 11 hours and 20 minutes. You might be thinking, “That poor devil had to pull several all nighters at the telescope to get that picture.” But remember we live in the science fictional world of the 21st century. Here’s what I actually did.

I purchased an iPod Touch app for $14 that wirelessly duplicates an image of my observatories computer monitor complete with keyboard and mouse control. The observatory computer monitors the telescope to make sure it stays locked on to a guide star so that it doesn’t drift away from the object I’m trying to image. If it does lose its lock, an alarm sounds so that you can manually regain a lock on the guide star. The only thing that the iPod app lacked was sound which means I wouldn’t be able to hear the alarm if it went off. I took care of that with a wireless baby monitor.

So during the hour after hour of images my telescope was robotically taking, I was sound asleep except for having to roll over in my bed once every two or three hours to pick up the iPod Touch and check to make sure the telescope was still tracking. If it lost its tracking, which wasn’t very often, I manually got the tracking back with a few swipes on my iPod Touch and went back to sleep.

Does it really look like that?

No, it doesn’t. Several filters were used that allow you to see only the hydrogen, oxygen and sulfur content of the image. These images were then combined with the result you see; very similar to how NASA processes the Hubble Space Telescope images. The green in the image is the hydrogen, the red is the sulfur and the blue is the oxygen.

There is always some science involved in the taking and processing of these images but there is also a touch of art involved as well. So if you were coming up on this nebula with an FTL (faster than light) spaceship you would see different colors and details but I’m sure it would be even more spectacular.

Now for some fun.

Look below and you’ll see some stereo images I prepared so you can view the Soul Nebula image in 3d.

The first image is the parallel version.  Just stare at the middle of the two images and another image should appear in 3D.

The second image is the cross version.  Just stare at the center of the image while crossing your eyes and another image should appear in 3D. This is the easiest for me to use.

©2008-2013 Richard Murray

Cross Vision Image Pair

©2008-2013 Richard Murray

  This is my second narrowband project which is the Soul Nebula right next door to the Heart Nebula.  The weather wasn’t as cooperative this time but I did manage to get most of the image exposures I needed.  I got a full six hours of Ha but only managed half that for the OIII and SII filters.  Still, it turned out pretty well.

Be sure to click on the image for a full size view and also at the bottom, the Read More link will take you to a great article in Universe today about this colorful nebula.

Date(s): 10-3, and 10-4-08
Object: IC1848 Soul Nebula in Cassiopeia
Telescope: Megrez 80mm APO, WO 0.8 FR/FF
Mount: LX90
Camera: Atik 16hr
Guiding:  Lx90 8″ SCT, DSI Pro, Phd Guiding
Filters: Ha 6nm, OIII 15nm, SII 14nm
Exposure: 11 hrs 20 mins Ha 12×30 mins, OIII 10×20 mins, SII 6×20 mins, Binning 1×1
Processing: CCDStack, Photoshop CS2, PixInsight, Hubble Palette: SII=Red,Ha=Green,OIII=Blue
Location: Burke Ave. Observatory, Three Rivers, Michigan

Read More

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The Collaborative Novel

muppits at typewriterHave you ever thought about collaborating on a novel with another writer? I’m working on a novel off and on with my wife and believe it or not we’re still speaking to each other. She supplied me with the initial ideas for the plot. I do the actual writing. She reviews what I’ve written and acts as line, copy and story editor and then I incorporate her corrections and ideas and the cycle repeats. Sixty thousand words later we might stand a chance of actually finishing the first draft.

I’m pretty sure most coauthor efforts aren’t as blissful as ours.

For example, during a collaboration between novelists Edwin O’Connor (1962 Pulitzer Prize for ‘The Edge of Sadness’) and Edmund Wilson, Wilson wrote:

“In writing alternate chapters with Ed, I very soon ran into difficulties. He would not always accept my cues of my methods, and I found my narrative blocked. I suspected that this was deliberate and that we were playing a game of chess, and this suspicion has been corroborated by Mrs. O’Connor’s telling me that, in sending back Chapter 4, Ed had said to her with satisfaction, “Well, I guess I’ve got him now”.

Arthur C. Clark and Stephen Baxter used to solve their disagreements during the writing of the ‘Time Odyssey’ novels by vigorously arguing on the phone or email until one of them came up with a better idea that they could both agree on.

Stephen King and Peter Straub during the writing of ‘The Talisman’ didn’t seem to have any significant problems at all. Stephen King said during an interview: “We wrote the beginning and ending together. Peter put on some jazz in his office, and I wrote for a while as he read magazines. When I was done, he’d pick it up where I had left off. For the rest of the book we divided the work. I’d write a chunk for a month or so at my house and then Peter would continue another chunk at his.”

They did the same thing during the sequel ‘Black House’ by taking turns sitting down at the computer to try and push the story forward.

During a joint interview King said, “Peter’s a friend and I only have about three of them. He makes me laugh harder than anyone else.” Straub replied, “That’s because you’re twisted.”

Then there was the SF husband and wife writing team of Walt and Leigh Richmond who wrote mostly for Analog magazine in the 1960’s. They had an interesting method of collaboration. Walt would sit in his chair and telepathically transmit story ideas to Leigh while she typed. In all of the published stories Walt was given full credit as coauthor.

A good example of the downside of the collaborative experience is Harper Lee’s effort with Truman Capote which is perhaps the most infamous backstab in American literature. Lee is of course the author of her one and only book ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. At Capote’s request Lee helped him on and off during his writing of ‘In Cold Blood’. The two, who were long time childhood friends, had a rift and the collaboration ended. When the novel was published, Capote dedicated the book to Lee and his longtime partner but failed to acknowledge Lee’s contributions to the work. Lee was very angry and hurt by the betrayal.

If you’ve ever seriously considered a collaboration, there’s an interesting 20 minute podcast on the nuts and bolts of it at Adam Scull’s website, Eat Sleep Write. This man, woman collaboration was for an alternative history novel called ‘Saving Jackie K’ in which the Soviets botched their attempt to kill John Kennedy and ended up killing Jackie instead. For this outrage a decades long war between the US and Russia ensues bringing them to the brink of nuclear war until something very unusual is done to save the planet.

To listen to the podcast at website:

Or here:

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Wake Up Call

Tsunami waves, asteroid impactHere’s a first draft excerpt I wrote this morning from my Novel in progress ‘Freeman’s Ocean’ which is pertinent for today and contains a little future history as well:

A few generations back Stephen Hawking had staunchly ranted about how the species of man faced extinction if we didn’t get off this rickety blue planet soon and start colonizing the solar system. Recognized as being a pretty smart guy, his conjecture was believed by some and ignored by all.

That was until we were given a little extra incentive of the jump up and take notice kind. Our water planet had managed to absorb most of the small and not so small space rocks that found their way here. Then in 2034 a statistical anomaly occurred with the arrival of an M-type metallic asteroid dubbed 2034 AT7 (later named Ceresta) that chose to ignore the bell curve and slammed at a 47 degree angle into the city of Portsmouth, Virginia killing half of its 120,000 population and, just as an afterthought, took out most of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Forty three seconds later a splintered off chunk hit the Elizabeth River on which Portsmouth sits damming the river up and diverting it over to the city of Norfolk where a good share of the population there drowned in their sleep.

Funny thing. Over the next seven years the NASA-ESA budget tripled in size and commercial space faring and experimental rocket research really took off, funded in part by NASA-ESA’s swollen coffers.

Solar system exploration exploded as well with countless satellites, rovers, and probes of all persuasions sent to the planets and their respective moons. If it had even a remote chance of being populated by us, we headed over there with a vengeance to check things out.

The respective governments groaned under the economic repercussions of printing vast amounts of currency but, as they backlashed and began to tighten up the money spigot, the commercial end of exploration showed that they weren’t just interested in moving a few of us off planet. They were much more enthused about extraterrestrial resource development which really means finding stuff out there you could sell. The commercial end of things realized at the get go that if you’re going to ship people off planet you have to find a way to pay for it.  That’s why the infrastructure for a space mining industry was built much sooner than anyone had anticipated and the governments breathed a sigh of relief as they found a new mother load source of tax revenue.

First on the list were the top five bets for extraterrestrial life – Enceladus, Europa, Mars, Io, and Titan. That last destination may sound a little foolhardy since Titan’s temperature would freeze us into popsicles in a heartbeat but the organic compounds and energy resources we could live off of there were ridiculously abundant. So we decided to go anyway.

Enceladus and Europa were the top bets with Enceladus being the most likely life bearing body. We didn’t forget about Mars and eventually established colonies there. It’s just that Enceladus and Europa because of their small size would be the quickest to start populating, particularly with the Higgs mass generators available to make for a smoother adjustment to these small moon’s meager gravity wells.

Just because Enceladus had life, and possibly self aware life at that, was no deterrent. We’d do what we always did – populate and build relentlessly until we used up all of the bodies resources and then move on. Unless, of course, the resident life found a way to stop us which, from our past experience on Earth, we thought very unlikely.


Now here’s the dialog equivalent of the above narrative:

Eric said, “You remember reading about how Stephen Hawking used to rant continually about getting our butts off Earth? Sooner or later we’d all get wiped out.”

 “Sure that’s history 101. All he got for his troubles was a yawn and a yeah maybe while they looked the other way,” Joan said. “Everybody pretty much ignored him, kept their heads down and relied on luck to get them through.

Then that asteroid. What was it called, Ceresta I think, hit in 2034 and wiped out Portsmouth in the middle of the night along with a good chunk of Norfolk on the opposite side of the river.”

“Now that was one hell of a wake up call. The only good thing to come out of that was funding tripled at NASA-ESA and they took off like a rocket,” Eric said. “No pun intended.

“No pun taken,” she said.

He looked puzzled for a moment and then laughed. Must be a cultural thing.

She continued on. “The commercial side of space humored NASA-ESA for awhile but they were much more interested in finding ways to move space rocks to sell to people just like themselves. Colonization was just a by product.”

“That was probably a good thing,” Eric said. “It paid back a lot in the long haul, and stopped us all from going broke from all the funny money that was printed to finance the big push.”

“Good point Eric. Turning over space to private enterprise is the real reason we’ll be taking a stroll on Enceladus in a just few minutes.”


The dialog version cut out a lot of hot air from the narrative and followed the rule of show don’t tell (kind of). But to tell you the truth I liked the narrative version better. Well they always say rules were meant to be broken. I’ll probably end up combining the two.

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The Writers Room

SundanceChannel_writersroomFor anyone curious about what a writer’s room creative process is like and how they crank out all of those weekly episodes, there’s a new series on the Sundance channel called ‘The Writers Room’ where the original writers of a series discuss their scripted TV show. This is a 30 minute program so there’s no real depth here but I found the first episode interesting. The show is hosted by the Academy Award winning actor-writer Jim Rash and is produced in conjunction with Entertainment Weekly. If you’re a writer like me, you might be watching in the hopes that some of that creative energy will rub off.

Here’s the link to the full first episode which features the writers of ‘Breaking Bad’ a TV series which featured one of the most famous transformational arcs ever written which has been coined ‘Mr. Chips to Scarface’. For those of you who haven’t seen Breaking Bad, it’s about a high school chemistry teacher who becomes a methamphetamine cook and slowly transitions from the protagonist to the antagonist in a series which ran for 63 episodes. You can pick up the first 45 episodes of Breaking Bad on Netflix. Once you start watching Breaking Bad, I’ll bet you can’t stop. > : )

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The Process of Writing

Frustrated Writer iStock 10-27-13Here’s a brief outline of my current writing process (a good exercise for me to clarify what I do and what I need to change).

After my initial story idea I use Keynote for a brief plot outline and begin writing based on that. I’m too impatient to do a full outline immediately and starting to write early helps me sketch out a more thorough outline as I continue. I do this early enough in the process so I shouldn’t find myself in any plot dead ends.

In the process of writing, I do an enormous amount of what I call brain dumping using my digital voice recorder. Once I’ve honed in on a story, these recordings are literally nonstop and occur 24/7 with some sleepless nights repeatedly picking up the recorder to the point that I have to keep it turned on next to my pillow. I do a pretty good job of keeping up on transcriptions from the recorder but it can be challenging at times to transcribe everything.

I transfer the initial outline of the story to Scrivener and start writing some of the major ideas for the story. Once I have a fairly sizeable amount of notes transcribed I use Keynote (a free SourceForge program) to begin a thorough outline. Once that’s completed (it’s never completed) I take my transcribed notes and some research notes and place them in the appropriate sections of the outline. This has proved very helpful in getting that huge amount of information organized. This is an ongoing process that goes on throughout the writing of the first draft. As I flesh out my characters more during revision, I’ll probably use Keynote to organize this as well. This is an area I need to improve on by giving dimension to my characters earlier in the process.

At the same time I take all of my research notes and pertinent websites that are helpful in fleshing out the story and put them in Evernote tagged according to their subject and relevance. I could actually use Scrivener for this since it has a lot of Evernote’s functions but the PC version is too clunky in that regard. The Mac version is pretty much flawless and has more features which is why I currently have a serious case of Mac envy and foresee a MacBook Air as a selfish and totally uncalled for purchase in my future (well, maybe next Spring when the new models come out) .

As far as my daily word count, when I’m rolling along I’ll write an average of about 850 per day and when I’m having a burnout slump about 450. I’ve never gone below the lower amount for 7 months and 18 days so far. I hope I can keep it up because the BIC method (butt in chair) really does work, if you have the discipline. I keep track of my words per day in Magic Spreadsheet as well as a backup spreadsheet of my own. As I continue to get more organized I hope my average word count will go up.

My notes and research far exceed my novels word count which I view as a good thing.

During revision, I’m definitely going to use a newly discovered writing tool called Pro Writing Aid.

It’s a constantly evolving and learning process but that’s pretty much it so far.

Update 9-9-13: About 90% of the people who start writing a novel give up at some point when they realize the daunting task ahead of them. In other words, it’s a lot harder than they had anticipated. I’m starting to realize how difficult good writing is as I get further and further into the actual mechanics of writing. But rather than get discouraged I’m getting excited because I’m actually starting to wrap my head around some of these techniques to the point where I actually understand how to use them.

For example I’m starting to realize how extremely helpful a W Storyboard and Linear Storyboard using the three act structure would be to get the big picture of your unwieldy novel as well as pushing it in the directions it needs to go in an organized as opposed to random way.  Here are a couple of videos by Mary Carroll Moore discussing storyboarding:

In addition to storyboarding I recently ran across an outline of how to use the Jim Butcher method of writing by interfacing it with Scrivener which is the program I use for all my writing. This is from ‘The Writing Site of R.K. Athey:

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Science Fiction and Religion

flying_saucer_church                                                I said laser pointer not laser cannon!

When you mention the words religion and hard sf in the same breath it brings to mind The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Although technology is not central to the story, the passages involving linguistics come close to hard sf and the depiction of the aliens is remarkable .

A team of Jesuit priests make first contact with an alien species. The crew aboard the vessel destined for the Alpha Centauri system consist of the Jesuits, a variety of atheists and a Jew which makes for some fascinating character contrasts.

The aliens are carnivores who herd their prey and selectively breed them for adaptability, intelligence and well . . . tastiness. Only one person, a priest, returns alive from the mission. He is damned as a traitor by some and viewed as a saint by others.

The novel is at its core a respectful, thought provoking examination of faith and what it means in the face of adversity to question it, lose it, and regain it.

You may not agree with the novel’s religious or philosophical concepts but I can guarantee, whether you’re religious, agnostic or atheist, most who read it will be thinking about it long after they’ve finished and will gain from the experience.

An interesting side note is that in some respects this novel is an autobiography. The author is by trade a paleoanthropologist, has a catholic background, turned away from religion at the age of 15, came back to it as an adult and then converted to Judaism. A classic case of write what you know.

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Approaching Editing

I’ve just started editing my first novel draft so I’ve been tuned in to any books/articles on the editing process.
I’m reading ‘Self-Editing for Fiction Writers’ and next up is ‘Revision & Self-Editing’ by James Scott Bell.
I just ran across an article by fantasy author Rachel Aaron about her take on editing. Her process is very systematic and practical which my ocd nature can relate to. Don’t miss the comments section where she refines her process even further. Very practical and useful at least from a novices perspective:
I hope a few of you seasoned authors (seasoned ≠ old & creaky / seasoned = published) will take the time to look at the article and comment on whether you go through a similar process or have any techniques/tools/books to add to the list.
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World Building With Elon Musk Geordie Rose and Tony Stark

Speaking of world building, there are two living people who are in the process of doing that in real life and in real time. I’ve been watching them lately trying to gain some insights for world building of my own in my writing. To me their lives and their ideas are fodder for countless novel plots and either one would be an excellent subject for a non fiction book if you were so inclined and started tracking their lives right now.

Top on the list is Elon Musk who not only founded Tesla Motors to produce electric vehicles (which were just rated 5+ for safety) but is the founder and CEO of SpaceX whose rockets have already made a couple of supply runs to the ISS and has about 2 1/2 billion dollars in back orders.

The central character in the movie Iron Man, Tony Stark, was based on Elon Musk. I think a much more accurate comparison would be the character of Reid Malenfant in the Manifold Time series of novels by Stephen Baxter. During a time when the world was turning inward to try to resolve mans misuse of the planet, Malenfant bootstrapped some mothballed shuttle engines and decided to go explore space with the idea of mining and colonization. Musk has beaten Malenfant by not relying on old technology but designing his engines from scratch so he could build his own rockets from the ground up. He not only surpassed the fictional Malenfant but has gone well beyond him in some areas. Musk is going to skip mining for the time being and go directly to Mars. Plans for his Mars Colonial Transporter are already well underway. I believe he will make the trip before I’m pushing daisies and I’m already starting to toddle. If he were a normal human being, his plate would be full with little time to spare for other projects but, being an intellectual super mutant with enough cred to wear a cape, he has decided to pursue building a hyperloop bullet train and is designing a hologram system to build rocket parts with hand gestures alone. This man is a walking, talking sf novel who could make Tony Stark beg for a better armor design.

Next on the list is Geordie Rose who is the founder of D-Wave Systems out of Canada. I recently watched a two hour video of Rose who discussed D-Waves adiabatic quantum computing system compared to current approaches taken by mainstream science. The clarity of the man’s thinking is astounding. He is very exciting to listen to and I can’t count the number of plot ideas that popped up just by listening to him for a short time. He views the mainstream approach to quantum computing as an attempt to martial the worlds resources to build a conventional ladder from earth to the moon. Perhaps with super materials we could eventually get the job done but why bother when it has no chance of ever being used. So his approach is not to worry about superposition and decoherence because adiabatic computing completely avoids those herculean obstacles.

Here’s the link to Roses video. I hope you’re as fascinated as I was listening to this man. You wouldn’t think that a former college wrestler who stayed as an undergraduate for an extra year so he could continue to compete on the wrestling team would be an interesting entrepreneur-scientist to listen to. But after watching him for a while you begin to understand why Google, NASA and Lockheed Martin recently purchased D-Wave’s quantum computers. Don’t miss the end where Rose talks about the progress in machine learning and how AI will be achieved sooner than we think.

Elon Musk has said that he won’t consider an initial public offering of SpaceX like he did with Tesla Motors until the Mars Colonial Transporter is fully functional but I think his venture capital friends will put pressure on him to IPO long before that. Rose will be offering an IPO perhaps sooner than Musk. In any case I’ll be first in line to purchase a tinnie bit of that stock so I can maintain my dotage in an upscale nursing home.

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