Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Phyton: Episode 1

** This is the first episode in a series. Also take a look at my other stories. **

“Okay, run this by me again, I don’t quite get it.” Dr. Al Ingram stood with his arms crossed studying the shorter man intently. He certainly didn’t need to have it repeated, except to hopefully lay his incredulity to rest. The man wore his dark grey suit, somewhat reminiscent of styles from earlier in the century, with a bit of unease and the unease transmitted itself through his movements.

“Alright,” Jeff ran a thick-fingered hand through his black hair and took a step back, as though he could retrace his words with steps. It also helped him to not look up at such an angle. “You are a recognized skeptic, outside of your own work…”

“And I am never complacent with that either.” Al cut in.

“Right, well we need you to work with the Fislers. We would like you to look into their advances. We believe that you are the best suited for this as it fits your field and you have the clearance.” Jeff finished and stared at Al.

Al closed his eyes and reached up to rub the bridge of his nose, and only realized once again that he no longer had the heavy glasses which plagued him up until six months ago. He stopped midway through and tried to naturally lower his hand without too much extra frustration from the long ingrained habit. He opened his eyes and Jeff stopped fidgeting and shifting from foot to foot.

“First, I am not a microflora expert, I test G.E. plants to see how they interact with their environment. Second, they are a husband and wife team that has only a few student helpers, not something a full-fledged researcher can walk into without raising a whole bunch of red flags. And lastly, even though I am trying to mitigate genetically modified crop adverse impacts before they ever get out there, and I know that there are sleazy genetic engineers, I don’t like your implication that the Fislers might be going beyond a basic symbiotic relation between the microflora and humans.”

Jeff quirked a smile, a bit nervously and defused the argument, “Right the last reason is why we need you there: a negative skeptic, though don’t negative skeptic the Defense Department projects, they don’t like people mucking about. I’m sure you can pick up an understanding of their work very quickly, right?” It was a near perfect parry, feint, and point. Jeff seemed over anxious almost all the time, but maybe that is why opponents had underestimated him while fencing.

Al shook his head, he decided to ignore the logic, “Look, we’ve known each other for a long time, but I need to continue my work. Things still aren’t getting enough review before going out there, even after the staple-scare of 2035. Thanks, but no.” He ushered Jeff out of the lab, some friend to ask him to spy on other friends.


“Sir, he won’t cooperate, and he has some good points.” Jeff stood fidgeting, of course, in front of his boss’s boss.

“Well we can make some good points too, funding cuts,” Jeff tried not to grimace at that, Special Agent-In-Charge Flind smiled and continued, “or extra funding and help. If his lab is in good hands while he works in California, maybe he’d be more willing to go. But I think this will really convince him it’s a good idea.” Flind tapped a manilla envelope nearly obscured by other carefully arranged paperwork, carefully arranged to those who knew him, or at least that is what Jeff had heard about the desk, to him it seemed an indecipherable mess. “Come pick it up when you are ready to see him next, and tell your boss to calm down, she isn’t losing you, I just need your connections.”

“Thank you sir,” Jeff tried not to make it sound too sarcastic. It was tough to work for two bosses, even when his boss’s boss obviously took priority. It was as though he couldn’t convince his boss that he would be back once he finished the assignment. If she really didn’t want to lose him why did she seem exasperated with his fidgeting?

** Next episode **

Monday, October 17, 2016

Short Story: Caught Speeding

*Note: This is not a new concept, but I am definitely practicing writing. Here are more short stories.*

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“What?” An automatic response to really any noise my officemate made, some exceptions.

“This is nuts.”

Not answering directly usually indicated that I should pay attention, but it did seem he was just saying things to be outraged over the most recent political scandal. However, when I looked up the chagrin on his face didn’t seem faked. He slammed his chair back and stood up, paced in the small office and then retrieved the chair . Sitting down he grimaced, and took a breath I recognized as his story-telling breath.

He beckoned me to come around to look at his screen.

He had what looked like a really badly done version of YouTube, yep, GovTube. Nobody watched GovTube unless they were told to. Maybe if the government had made one well-thought-out contract with YouTube more people would have used it.

“Watch this,” he nearly spat and violently slammed the space bar. I only flinched inwardly.

The top view of a red convertible with a single male, obvious from the male pattern baldness and other more subtle hints, was driving, quite quickly along a road in a desert.

“He is going very fast,” I remarked blandly, it was never good to get him more excited, it would just make things worse.

“Yes he is, 162 miles per hour.” The way he said it made me stop watching and look at him. There was a smoldering anger that often came up when people started to do stupid things, or continue without heeding his warnings. But this was different, there was a much deeper connection.

“Wait, that’s you?” I hope I put enough incredulity in the question so he could take it either way.

“Yep, after a conference five years ago.”

“What was observing you?” I went through my knowledge of all the public and military satellites that might record it, “But wouldn’t they have brought this up earlier? Err…” It was a bit of an accusation, him driving that fast, if he had been pulled over he would have lost his job and clearance.

He chuckled wryly. “They certainly shouldn’t have sat on it this long. I wouldn’t have even worked on the project if they had any inkling of this. I didn’t even tell my wife.” He was becoming awfully jovial for a man that was about to lose his job. “Maybe the bureaucracy is just as bad as everyone thinks it is.”

“But five years, I mean it’s more likely that the superluminal satellite project was a success, despite the explosion in orbit.” I paused for moment to do a bit of morbid calculation of the dead project, back then we had amazing offices and dreams that extended outside of the solar system, “The telescope would have just gone through five light years away about four months… ago…”

My face must have looked the same as his, ashen, mouth partly gaping. I saw him start to form words, but I had to be the first to say it.

“That’s more like the bureaucracy I know, what?”

“I can’t believe they are using Dan’s work to nab me, what?”

The Lab of O

I’ve started the new job at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology! Specifically I am working for the Macaulay Library and it is awesome! When I started my previous job at COS I really wanted to push them to start supporting citizen science, but that never really worked out. Now I am dropped right in the middle of a citizen science and machine learning project! What could be better? If you want to help out: edbird is where you should submit checklists and upload photos, and merlinvision is where you can box/annotate bird photos.

So other than the tons of paperwork that comes with switching jobs, it is pretty awesome. My normal commute now is a walk in through the woods, with binoculars, so I can bird on the way in and out, and sometimes lunch too. It certainly beats 30 minutes each way unless I got stuck behind a bus.

Of course I am still learning the stack after two weeks (I claim there is quite a bit of paperwork to do), but I am starting to wrap my head around how things are done and being reminded how repetitive Java is: Make a new instance of a class by first telling the compiler that this is an instance of this class and then using “new” and the class… I understand that it makes it solid, near indestructible code, but I am not a huge fan. Also semicolons, thank goodness for a good development environment.

The best thing about this job is birds. People at work like birds! There are 1.4 million bird photos with more coming in every day from people across the world. It is just amazing that I am getting paid to do this. I guess they are paying me to become familiar with Java, the rest is just icing on the cake.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


I decided to skip the update this week, it was much too disjointed and just felt blah. So rather than that I will write a rant, much more exciting, and outward focused.

In Elon Musk’s talk on September 27th he commented during answering questions that the first people to venture to Mars will have to accept the risk of death. A perfectly reasonable risk as they will be even further away from Earth than Apollo 13, but still possibly disconcerting.

What surprises me is that Elon Musk’s age, he is nearly the perfect age for some of the biggest psychological impact from the Challenger disaster. To put it into perspective he was a year or two younger when that happened than I was when 9-11 happened. A teenager dealing with a disaster that may have injured or scarred that generation watching as a teacher was going to orbit. It is possible that this group of kids, now grown, could be reticent to embrace risk for space travel, just as my generation is quite heavily scarred from the subsequent wars.

In fact my fear for the future of spaceflight is that NASA will start to get administrators that were traumatized by that event, and rather than learning to balance risk with listening experts, we still need to push. But Elon seems to be bucking that possibility, even to the point of acknowledging that there will be risk of death. He and SpaceX are pushing technology to get to Mars. Is it a moonshot? No, it’s a marsshot.

Will they be successful? Will they make it in time? What are the risks of failing? What are the risks of delaying? But it isn’t these questions that really worry me, no, it is the responses to these grand plans that really bother me: “It’s too big, too much, too soon, too risky.” “We shouldn’t be swinging for the fences, small incremental steps are better.”

My response is: We are going to bore people to death with incremental steps. We need these pushes, not everything can be safe. The only way we are going to advance quickly is to try new things quickly. Of course some will fail catastrophically, bet on it. But to keep a slow, glacial pace of incremental advancements doesn’t do anything for anybody. Failing early with all of these unmanned missions helps to keep technology going forward, as long as we are willing to continue investing.

If it is the argument about funding, we spent nearly 1 trillion dollars (a very conservative estimate) in Iraq and Afghanistan where some people say hundreds of thousands of people died directly or collaterally. Tell me again why we can’t risk many fewer lives and much less money advancing technology rather than bombing people back to the stone age?

Of course it isn’t as cut and dry as that. If we weren’t concerned with global politics and allowed a vocal violent minority to take over, either large sections of the planet, or specifically the US, then technological development in areas other than new weapons would have even less appeal. Either for the war effort or our new, non-representative overlords. (Even when the reasons aren’t all that clear all the time for US involvement; we should continue to play a significant role in the world, but it is worth discussing the method and the cost.)

Do we need to go to Mars? In short: I hope not. Should we go? Yes and soon.