Monthly Archives: August 2014

Writing prompt: I’ve never seen one, but how hard could it be?”

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“I’ve never seen one, but how hard could it be?” (This prompt inspired by the Erie Canal, built by four men who hadn’t even seen a canal when they set out to build one.)


“I’ve never seen one before, but how hard could it be?” Emmaye Cevluss said. “They built them practically in medieval times, it’s just a ditch full of water.”


Three months later and how she regretted those words. Without construction equipment, how did she remove the dirt? Without drafting software, how did she visualize the project? How would she calculate stress loads? On this new world, where would she find the materials for good concrete? For good steel?

How hard could it be? A canal connecting the bay to the western part of the peninsula with the quarries and mines. It might as well be a space elevator. Since they had arrived on this world, every day was a day spent learning to adjust to all the things it didn’t have.

Their ship, the Neva, was supposed to help with many of these things. Instead it sat broken, useless, to the west. All the energy it held was devoted to cold storage, to keep biological samples like seeds and useful fungi and bacteria until they could be properly used. And now the cold storage was having issues.

And it was starting to rain a lot. Especially a lot for a supposed desert region.

It was going to be a while before there was a canal.


A weekend of swimming

This weekend I went to Maryland and swam in the masters National meet. Other than a fun meet last year, it was the first time I’ve competed it over ten years.

I had a blast! I met some local swimmers. I swam good times. I watched a 98-year-old woman compete.

Swimming is a weird sport–what other sport comes so close to being a sense-depriving experience? You hear little. You see the lines on the bottom of the pool and your own arms. Maybe you see people on deck. You feel the water flow past you and the complaint of muscles. You taste chlorine. And you go. As you go, your mind dissolves a little. I reach the wall, and all that matters is the number on the clock. If I close my eyes, I feel the sensation of dizzy flight. When I push hard, I don’t feel pain, I feel a lack of self. Swimming is a mental absence best portrayed by Ryan Lochte. It’s meditation achieved by depriving the brain of the chemicals it needs to sustain distraction.

I don’t know if this post is super relevant to my overall blog. That’s okay for today. Not every moment is about projects and writing and striving. The moments of joy are the poles that hold up the tent. Not every day in the water is a moment of joy, but enough of them are. The little things– a good meal, a good friend, a good workout– these hold up the motivation. Sometimes they deserve their own attention. What a weekend.


Writing prompt: foraging

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Foraging” (This prompt inspired by the well-known Danish foraging restaurant, top-rated Noma.)


“Announcing the release of the Forage 1000! For the low price of $1000, you can virtually eliminate grocery costs!”

Sylvia showed Tanisha the ad. Tanisha couldn’t share Sylvia’s enthusiasm. For one thing, she didn’t have nearly the shares in the product. But for another thing, Tanisha always felt a little sad when scientific breakthroughs went toward such short-sighted uses. And there was that third thing…

“So what about when everyone has one?” Tanisha asked. She had helped write the software that finally allowed machines to approximate an animal sense of taste. “Then these foragers won’t find much of the cheap grasses and fungi and bugs you’re promoting it for.”

Sylvia shrugged. “I think that’s a pretty good problem to have. Then we up the price. Or make a new one that finds things the old one didn’t.”

Tanisha sighed. She had to say it, she knew it. But it was hard giving bad news to funders. “You can’t.”

Sylvia crossed her arms. “Spit it out.”

“We still have this little problem,” Tanisha said. “It’s not perfect about identifying poisons.”

Sylvia sat.

“The body is complex. Something can taste good but have trace amounts of toxin or parasites or bacteria. Or just be bad for you like antifreeze. We didn’t know until a few weeks ago when we started to use a larger sampling range. Two dead mice.”

“We can fix that, right?” Sylvia said hopefully. “You’re going to fix this.”

Tanisha nodded, and Sylvia left, already on the phone. She turned to the ad. “How am I going to fix this?”

Fun science: An easy fractal to make at home


Viscous fingering is a fractal pattern that occurs when a less viscous (or thick) fluid spreads through a more viscous (or thick) fluid. Such systems are present in oil extraction, when we pump one fluid underground to push another one out. Fractals are common in nature even though they’re new to our mathematics, and they are beautiful.

The pictures in this post were created with basic watercolor paints using one simple principle: water containing paint is more viscous than regular water. It’s easy to try at home!

For the top picture, I laid down red paint. Before the paint dried, I added salt, then let the square dry. Water from the still-damp paper rushed to the salt (because of entropy, systems tend towards uniform distributions of things if they can help it– in this case, the lowest energy state is to have a uniform distribution of salt). But because paint molecules are larger than water molecules, they don’t move as well. The water that accumulates around the salt has less paint than the water in the rest of the paper, and thus we have a less viscous fluid spreading into a more viscous one. Try it at home! If the paint is too wet or too dry when you add the salt, the results won’t be as dramatic, so play around a bit. Larger salt crystals can be especially fun.

For the three pictures below, I simply placed a drop of water into a damp square of paint. The patterns vary depending upon the size of my drop, the wetness of the paint, and the paint color (the chemistry of which influences the viscosity of the paint).

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Below are a couple of examples from the University of Alberta of viscous fingering with pentane into oil and water into oil. This particular research aims to improve the flow rate of oil during extraction. And it looks pretty similar to some humble watercolors.

Left: pentane displacing mineral oil. Right: Water displacing mineral oil (University of Alberta).

Another Fairy Tale at last


When I released my collection of science fiction fairy tales, it was the start of a push to creatively engage with the world. I finally finished a project and put it out there, doubtless non-perfect like everything. Since then, I’ve submitted my short works nearly 90 times (with 3 acceptances). I’ve joined a writing group and participated in critiquing groups to work on my writing. I’ve studied Adobe’s Photoshop and illustrator, and recently painting, to improve my artistic skills. I’ve studied Indesign and book layout. I started posting regularly on this site, as I have for nearly two years now. The first set of fairy tales started all of this self-improvement.

I always intended to do another collection of fairy tales. I recently finished the first story, “The Lonely Man on the Ship”, about a man trapped alone for years on a spaceship during  terrible storms. I did the art with Prismacolor color pencils (which I intend to use for the rest of the eventual collection).

Now I’m coding the fairy tale for the kindle. Once I do, “The Lonely Man on the Ship” will be available free on the kindle and on the iPad. Much of the last two years’ studies has gone into this work. I used Indesign and illustrator for layout work. I used Photoshop to make sure my scanned art work was as attractive as possible. I think the writing is stronger than in the first fairy tales. As the first fairy tales inspired new studies, to release this work properly I’m learning CSS and HTML coding.

So until I finish this last step, enjoy a couple of illustrations!

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