Friday, June 29, 2012

Photographing GTC's tertiary mirror

Yesterday the maintenance team took the tertiary mirror out of the huge GranTeCan telescope, and I was invited to take photos.

(Starlight hits the huge primary mirror first, then bounces up to the smaller secondary mirror at the top of the telescope, then back down into a tube called the baffle to the flat tertiary at 45ยบ, which sends it to the scientific instruments at the sides. The tertiary is elliptical, and measures about 100 x 50 cm.  I don't know what it cost, but I'd take a wild guess at 300,000€.)

It meant a special trip up the mountain, but I got to climb all over the huge telescope almost like it was a jungle gym - on the walkway around the primary, taking photos through the broken Cassegrain focii, while the engineers fitted a special frame onto the mirror ready to lift it out with the crane (they'd already taken the top half of the baffle off.) Then I went up to the first balcony and Nasmyth again while the mirror lifted through the air. Then I took close up photos on the dome floor while they put it onto a different frame for moving it along the floor, and removed the crane frame. And I followed it through to the realuminizing area. 
We stopped for lunch, then I took a few pictures of the mirror being cleaned and put into the special vacuum tank where the thin layer aluminium will be replaced. 

Running up and down stairs was more exercise than you might think, since the Nasmyth platforms are two stories up, and the Roque is high enough that there's only 75% of the usual amount of oxygen. By the time I left, I was tired.

I went home via the water mine (to collect spring water), the cash point and the supermarket, getting more and more tired. I was 2/3 of the way around the supermarket when I realised that I had someone else's handbag in my trolley. It took about 30 seconds to realise that I'd left my own trolley and walked off with someone else's. They were very nice about it, but I was still embarrassed. And when I got to the till, I found I didn't have my handbag. Luckily I hadn't abandoned it in the supermarket -  it was still in the car. 

After that, I pretty much gave up on the rest of the day and sat down with a large G&T.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

International Short Story Day

I missed it.


Well, better late than never.  Here's a partial list of my stories and where you can find them online.

Chick-Lit and Granny-Lit

"Destroying Angel": Jotter's Pad; October 2001
"Dream On": UK women's magazine Chat (circulation 500,000); May 2000


"Some Day my Prince Will Go" November 2010 at Daily Science Fiction
"Unreal Estate" October 2010 Wily Writers
"The Mummy's Curse": April 2009 issue of Flash Fiction Online
" Titch" in Issue 4.5 (Christmas 2006) of FARthing This was the Christmas card with drabbles sent to subscribers.
First Place in On The Premises" mini-contest #1 with Shopping Lists.
Conan the Librarian appeared in Alien Skin
"Frying Cabbage" appeared in Untied Shoelaces of the Mind

Dark Fantasy

"The Circle Line" May 2010 Untied Shoelaces of the Mind, Issue 2
"Loathsome Alyce": February 2010 issue of Wily Writers
"Screamcatcher": January 2010 Untied Shoelaces of the Mind, Issue 1


"If at First You Don't Succeed..." won equal First Place in the "Short not Sweet" contest at  R. S. Publishing The e-book Store.
"Shopping Lists": Spook City

If you enjoy these, you might also enjoy my anthology of nine quirky science fiction stories available at Dragon Tree Publishing/

Dragon Tree Publishing Logo

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Unscheduled delight

The plan was to drop off an invoice at the Tourist board in Santa Cruz de La Palma, then take my laptop to Los Tilos to write at the bar there, and maybe have a stroll. It took ages to find the power cord for the laptop, and then I had to let it charge for a bit while I read email for a while. So one way and another, by the time I got to Los Tilos, I only had time for a walk or a coffee-and-writing session. And the restaurant was shut, so that decided that. OK, I decided to go and get some photos of the giant fern Woodwardia woodwardia for the blog about La Palma. I followed the water channel upstream, since I haven't tried that path before. I was wearing flat sandals -not too bad but they weren't the best shoes for the job, and I had to watch my step. Then I found a tunnel, and I was very glad that I've taken to keeping a little torch in my handbag. And then the path detoured to the bed of the ravine. Oops. My sandale weren't up to this. I'd have to go back, but first I wanted to find the bit of water channel making the noise, in hopes that it was photogenic. And round the next bend, I found a gorgeous waterfall. Silly me, I hadn't even known about it. (I asked at the visitors' centre, and they say it's been there since the 1950s, and it's running almost year round. I have to go back with a tripod.)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Reward for Insomnia

I woke up at 6 am and couldn't get back to sleep. By 6:20, I gave up trying, and went out onto the balcony to see if I could learn another constellation. I took one look at the moon and Venus, and then I dashed back inside for my camera.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Tourist info

I had a different job this morning.  Instead of taking a bus full of tourists from a cruise ship around the island, I got to sit on the ship itself and provide tourist information data.

I was escorted on board. I had to pass my handbag and my box of maps through an airport-type scanner, and leave my driving license with the security people. Then I was taken up a level into what I supposed you'd call the lobby.

My goodness, it's a posh ship. The lobby (above) looked like a 5-star hotel.

I was officially supposed to start at 9 am, but there was already a queue when I got there at a quarter to, so I started answering questions. Taxi trips to volcanoes, laurel forest, buses to the silk museum etc. The maps disappeared at an alarming rate, and people joined the end of the queue about as fast as I dealt with them.

Gradually the questions changed from long trips to short trips, and then strolls around town. I started to sound like a parrot. "Follow the blue line out of the port - that's about five minutes - and then go along the sea front past the lovely 17th century balconies and the little castle which was attacked by Francis Drake..."

I said goodbye to a couple, and found nobody waiting. So I looked at my watch - 11:45. That's three hours with scarcely time to draw breath.

More people came along, at a slower pace. A few of my earlier customers trickled back with new questions (and one just to say "Thank you , that was just what we wanted.") But by 1 pm I was sitting on my own, clearing out old messages from my mobile.

Now, I'd been told to work until one, but I'd been escorted onto the ship, and I thought someone might well appear to escort me off.

Fifteen minutes later I called my boss, but he didn't answer. Five minutes after that, I called again. Still no answer.

At half past, I got up and found reception, and asked there. They said I could go. So I did.

After checking out the mega-posh loo, of course (below).

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Ray Bradbury and Ebooks

Electronic books are junk. To hell with them,” he said slamming his palm against the table. “It’s fake, it’s stupid! Goddamnit, it’s wrong! A book is a book!” Ray Bradbury  
I love books printed on dead trees. You don't need any gadget or batteries, and you can read them with the sun shining full on the page. I've spent an inordinate amount of my childhood reading in the fork of an apple tree or under the blankets with a torch. I love the smell of them. I love running my eye along the shelf and choosing. I love rummaging through a box of them at a flea market. I have over a thousand books at home, and how I love libraries!

 But in spite of this, and in spite of my vast respect for Ray Bradbury, I disagree with him.

A book doesn't have to be ink on paper. It's not so much the practical advantages, like saving money (provided you read a lot) or carrying a whole library around in your flight bag. Paper or ereader, what matters is the words.

 Think of a childhood memory. I'm thinking of a Christmas tree in the front room of the house I grew up in. The room lights are off, and the tree lights are on, and the smell is magical. The tree is at nearly four times my height, which means I was less than three years old.

 Go ahead and think of your own memory. Take a moment to get it clear.

Consider this. Practically every atom in your body and changed since then. (I believe the exception is the atoms in your bones.) So what makes me me? What makes you you? Whatever you are, it's not the atoms in your body.

In the same way, ink and paper don't make a book. The essential thing is the power those squiggles have to carry you to Mars or the Diskworld, or to let Plato speak, long after his bones have turned to dust. Put enough good thoughts into good words, and you've got a book. It doesn't matter how the words are stored. Parchment scrolls are real books. Paper books are real books. Ebooks are real books.

 And it's much harder for Montag to burn them.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Breathing Space (excerpt)

Dan Gaunt squirted half a tube of Tabasco into his chilli. It still tasted like ashes. He shovelled it in anyway.
Kylie, his wife, stared at him. “Don’t you like it, love?” asked Kylie.
Kylie’s eyes widened. “Chilli with added Tabasco is tasteless?”
He slammed his napkin down. The magnets in its corners clanged as they hit the steel table. One broke off, and the freed corner floated like seaweed in a current, breaking the illusion of gravity.
Kylie went very still. “Talk to me, Dan,” she said quietly. “I can see you’re hurting, but I don’t understand why.”
A large part of Dan wanted to clam up, but he’d begged Kylie to come 375 million kilometres so he could talk to her. This was their first chance to talk alone for eight months. “I’m not hurting. Numb. I don’t understand it either. But since I got here everything’s tasteless. Everything’s grey. It’s like some dentist injected me all over.”
“It must be horrible.”
Dan made himself go on. “This probably sounds stupid, but everything’s dead here. Never even been alive. I mean back on Earth there’s life everywhere. Everything’s busy eating something else. Even in the city there’s birds and moss and stuff. Everywhere.”
“And cockroaches. Remember that revolting flat in Glasgow?”
“Kylie, I’d give anything to be there again. Earth looks very small from here. Life gets to feeling like a bunch of meaningless atoms. People are just carbon and hydrogen, you know?”
“Have you told anyone else about this?”
“‘Course not. They’d have me on the next ship home.”
Kylie hesitated, then said, “Maybe you should come home.”
Dan pressed his lips together. “I won’t get another salary like this one. I got us into debt. I’ll get us out of it.”
“It wasn’t your fault!”
Dan muttered, “So who talked who into investing with Piers Mountbatten?”
“Look, he’s a pro. He made a living by taking people in. The judge said so.”
“So there’s one of us born every minute. Big help. Tell the bank that.”
Kylie took a deep breath. “We’ve been through this before. Let’s just agree to differ, and talk about you. Are you telling me you’ve been carrying this alone for five months?”
“Like I said, no-one to talk to. Seems like everyone’s in cliques. I started writing you an email, but when I wrote it down it looked stupid. Anyway, I don’t think email’s really private.”
Kylie nodded slowly. “What about the boss, that Nigerian guy you liked so much at the interview?”
“Shuwundu? He’s Kenyan, and he isn’t the boss. Anyway, he chatted up the pilot, Juanita, on the way out here, and now they’ve only got eyes for each other.”
“So what about the boss?”
Dan rolled his eyes. “Jim? Do me a favour! He thinks feelings are for wimps, and real men eat hard vacuum for breakfast. I can’t go tell him I’d like to see some butterflies now and then. Or failing that, cockroaches.”
“So why don’t you tell the owner?”
“He is the owner.”
Kylie gasped. “He owns this lot? So what’s he doing out here instead of living it up on Earth?”
“Proving he’s a real man. Avoiding alimony. Besides, he’s a control freak. He wouldn’t trust anyone else to wipe their own nose without supervision.”
“Depressing bloke to work with.”
Kylie took his hand. “Look, Dan. I know you when you get down. You haven’t thought of killing yourself, have you?”
Dan stared at his bowl of chilli “No,” he lied, absently scooping a blob of Tabasco from mid-air with his finger. The zero-G product had higher surface tension, but this drop had evidently splashed off anyway.
“Well if you can cope with this lot, on your own, you’re definitely over it then.”
“It” was his father fatally stabbing his mother, then himself. At age five, Dan heard the whole thing, cowering under his bed trying to comfort his little brother and keep him quiet. When the noise stopped, he’d been relieved, but neither of them had come out until Dan crept down in the morning. Now he stared at his chilli, seeing a lake of dried blood.
The vid-phone shrilled.
The chair’s magnetic feet screeched as Dan pushed it back. “And knowing my luck, that’s Jim now.” He unfastened his Velcro lap belt and stomped off to the phone, feeling Kylie’s eyes on his back all the way.
It was Jim all right, looking angry. “Dan, get to the spaceport now. Collision alert.” The screen went blank before Dan could draw breath, much less reply.
“Rude man,” said Kylie. “What’s a collision alert?”
“I’ll tell you while I get ready.”
They went to the airlock.
Dan said, “All the bigger asteroids are tracked by the computer, but there’s zillions of tiny ones too. One’s heading our way.” After five months here, getting into his spacesuit was simple. The trick was to get one foot firmly fastened into the suit before you took the other out of its metal-soled shoe. If you didn’t, you found yourself floating weightlessly around the airlock, magnetic floor or no magnetic floor. “So we’re going out to the other asteroid to push it out of the way. We don’t have to move it much – just give it a little nudge with a water gun, so it misses us.”
He zipped up the suit and gave Kylie a peck on the cheek. She looked worried. “Relax, Sweetheart. They’ve done this before. There’ll be an evacuation drill, but it’s just a precaution.”
She still looked worried.
He strapped on his fanny pack. “Honest. Now get out of the airlock, so I can go. See you.”
“Goodbye, Love. Take care.” She kissed him and went.
As Dan left the dome, he set the computerized electromagnets in his boots to ten percent G. He bounded effortlessly across the surface of Paycheck asteroid in ten-metre strides, accelerating to a reckless sixty kilometres an hour. Once the speed would have terrified him. Now it barely eased the emotional deadness.
His spacesuit lights threw a jumble of shadows. Each had razor-sharp edges, but at the speed he was going the ground was a blurred patchwork of red and black.
He passed the mine where he worked. B shift was working away, loosening huge chunks of ore. That was all they needed to do – loosen them and give them a nudge upwards. The mine was covered by a huge canopy like a funnel. Paycheck’s own rotation flung the ore to the top where the grinders and smelters converted it to stainless steel.
> Dan jogged on between the hawsers that held the canopy. Two hundred meters further, and he reached Paycheck’s pole. The spaceport blazed with lights as they unloaded the Buzz Aldrin. Buzz called twice a year. It brought mail, food, equipment, medicine and replacement personnel. Yesterday it brought Kylie and Johnny. Later today it would carry on to Liveheart, a comet core. Within a week it would be back to collect Kylie and Johnny and load up with stainless steel from the smelter. Even though Paycheck was eighty percent nickel-iron, mining and smelting was far more expensive than doing it on Earth. On the other hand, transporting it to a space construction site was dirt cheap because of Paycheck’s negligible gravity. The Company was making money hand over fist. So were its employees, because the job was dangerous.
Ten minutes later Dan sat at the back of the four-seater transport as they flew to the other asteroid. The others had done this several times before, but Jim constantly barked unnecessary orders. “Remember you’re in a zero-G vacuum everyone!”
As if I could forget, thought Dan. His suit smelled of old socks. His nose was itching again. These days it started itching as soon as he got into his suit and out of an airlock.
Dan could never understand why he was still alive while his mother was dead. Sometimes all he wanted was a convenient fatal accident so Kylie could collect his insurance. Then they’d all be free of Dan Gaunt. He wished his intercom had an off button so he could be alone with his misery, but he was stuck with Jim’s hectoring, and the noisy combined breathing of four people. It had taken him a long time to get used to the intercom. Everyone within a kilometre sounded as though they were right beside you.
“Now you’re all to do as you’re told. We can’t have no mistakes. We got to stick together and do this right.”
Shuwundu jabbed a finger up, behind Jim’s back, then stared at the approaching asteroid and said, “Why is it winking like that?”
The other asteroid was indeed winking, about once every nine seconds.
Jim said, “Five months out here and the prat still can’t tell when something’s rotating.”
Yes, thought Dan, but why would one side be so much brighter than the other?
As they got closer, Dan saw the asteroid was a peculiar shape. The bright side consisted mostly of a semi-circle, unnaturally accurate.
Shuwundu said, “It’s a ship!”

To continue reading, click here to buy the book.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Good news, bad news

We now have a shiny new router which should speed up Internet access.  And I have a major case of flat batteries.

Mind you, I'll probably be fine in a day or so, but we'll still have faster internet.

Friday, June 01, 2012

A delightful problem.

Last year I made a point of putting out two submissions per week, and not surprisingly, I sold a lot more.  This year, I'm concentrating on finishing the non-fiction book about the observatory, and I've been doing very little submitting. Obviously that means that the steady drip-drip-drip of rejections has dried up

So I was mildly surprised when a story came back yesterday after a very long wait, and pleasantly surprised that it was a "...but do send us more" rejection.

And I looked for another story to send them.  But I didn't have another suitable horror story free. One's waiting for a reply elsewhere, I haven't written any lately because I'm busy with the observatory book, and I've sold all the others.

I'm astonished.  What a delightful problem to have.