Friday, July 3, 2015

Flash Fiction Friday - No Country for Lepraucans




No Country for Lepraucans
by Leonard C Suskin


"America is no country for leprauchans. Oh, it's fine for the newfangled heavy-drinking American ones with their green jackets  and puts of shiny, clean gold. Addle-brained, the lot of them." The tiny, wrinkled and wizened man draws deeply from his rough-carved briar pipe. He was dressed in a gold-trimmed red jacket the color of dried blood.

"You don't seem fond of my land. Why did you even come here?" His drinking companion, a far taller man of dusty-red skin looks down. There's a hint of laughter - those who spend time with him will learn that there's ALWAYS a hint of laughter - in his eyes, touching the corner of his mouth.

The scene is a bar, but not one you'll ever been to. A place between this world and the next, where the mirror behind the bottles reflects dreams and the jukebox plays songs never recorded. It's that kind of place.

"Oh, ya know how it is. Things get lean in the old country, folk cram themselves into boats, we stowaway in their heads. Next thing we're in your country."

The taller man's facade of mirth fades, for just a moment. A lightning-flash of seriousness. "Not my country. My land."

The little man leaned back, raised his hands palm forward in apology. "Whoa, sorry. I know that's a sore spot. Didn't mean it. But really, these people now... You see the shoes they wear? All glued. Two hundred years in the old country I'm a cobbler. Here? They all expect rainbows and pots o' gold, and their soles are glued on. Glued."

"So? You can re-glue them. Or stitch them. Or... pull some of the glue loose. Weaken them. Make people long for real honest footwear."

"It's not the same."

"Of course it's not. The wheel turns. You still have your hammer. Find a problem that looks like a nail. Have you ever seen a Maker Faire?"

"Can't say I have."

"A bunch of tinkerers, gadgeteers, builders. Very complex little toys. Sometimes it takes just a little tweak to make one work better than the maker dreamed. Then you watch them scurry to figure out what they did right."

"You never change, do you?"

"Of course I change. We all change. But..." he smiled, reached below his barstool to pull open a canvas bag, filled with brightly colored cardboard tubes. "They always credit me with stealing fire. I almost have to. It's expected. "

Muffled explosions echoed from outside. the little man looked up. "So... want to go outside and find something to celebrate?"

"Why not? After all, we're in the 'land of freedom', right? Let's celebrate the future."
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Today is a holiday, but you still get your twice-weekly dose of flash-fiction. Remember, you can support my flash fiction here. 

Happy Fourth of July. Be safe, have fun. 
Happy Independence Day, everyone.


Does Sex Sell? On Appropriate Demo Material

I'm not doing much in terms of post-Infcomm wrap-up this year; like some of you, I watched from afar. There might be something to say about that process and how it developed over the years, especially with new tools like Periscope available for live-streaming of booth-tours and even parties. Today I'd like to revisit the depressingly common theme of casual sexism in the tech industry and why we all need to grow up a little bit.

If one is displaying a video product, one needs to think carefully about what test media to use. It need to be the right format. It needs to have a wide enough range of colors to highlight the display technology. Video streaming products need to have enough motion to prove that they can handle it without too many distracting artifacts. And, in something which should go without saying but sadly doesn't, the material needs to be appropriate for the situation and the audience. When we are at a business event - and trade shows, demo facilities, and showrooms ARE business settings - we need to conduct ourselves in a businesslike manner. If you want to be taken seriously, this is not the time to try to attract the (straight) male gaze with "sexy" content.
I discussed this very issue with a video transport manufacturer two years ago; in that case I expressed discomfort to the national sales manager manning the booth and was answered with a shrug, a smirk, and an "like it." That is what I remembered. This year the only impression I got of the ClearOne booth was this photograph, semi-anonymously shared with me. Yes, ClearOne chose to demo their network streaming solution with a loop of a lingerie show.

Why do I have an issue with this kind of media? First, and most obviously, is the point that it is demeaning to women. It sends a message to the female clients, contractors, consultants, and other professionals that they are in a "boys club" with a culture that sees women as decoration. It doesn't tell women "keep out", but it reminds them that they are in a place where they are seen to not belong. Enough of that kind of message and they'll feel that they don't belong; Clear One (and others who use this strategy) certainly aren't trying to talk to them.

Secondly, and equally important, it sends a message about their judgement. If I can't trust you to not display a six-foot tall image of a woman's derriere at a tradeshow, then why should I specify your product and risk having to expose contractors, clients, or other subcontractors to you and your team? What confidence can I have that the careless attitude about subtexts is not part of a corporate culture? One factor at which I look when specifying equipment is support; does a manufacturer have track record of standing behind their product, would they bring a team to site if needed, and would that team act like professional adults? The choice to screen a lingerie show on ones demo wall gives me zero confidence, especially non the last point.

AV systems once relied more on physical media than they do today; when I worked for AV integration firms I'd sometimes have ot provide media for testing. I remember grabbing a VHS tape from my personal collection when the office's stock of "official" media was elsewhere, and apologizing for the choice: Barney the Dinosaur. The tech on site laughed and said that he always used Thomas the Train Engine. Why? Because it was as aggressively harmless and inoffensive as media can be. No risk of salty language, no risk of anything suggestive or otherwise inappropriate, just video content mild enough for a toddler. I'm not saying that demo media need to be all purple dinosaurs and anthropomorphic trains. I AM saying that we need to be mindful of our potential audience, of the messages we might be sending.

Let your product speak for itself. Next time you arrange a demo, do so in such a way that it is brought ot my attention for the quality of your product and your work, not for your poor judgement.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Flash Fiction Tuesday: A Nice Game of Chess




It's flash fiction Tuesday! Notes follow the story.

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A Nice Game of Chess
by Leonard C Suskin



Silence.

Even the echoes of sound, even the memory of sound is gone.


Even the idea of an echo.



Then a sound.

Rusty, disused. Old.

It took time to recognize the sound.



A voice, singing.

My voice.

"You'll take the lead on each trip I take
then if I don't do well
I will permit you to use the brake
beautiful Daisy Bell"



I didn't do well, did I? Maybe it worked. Maybe the sacrifice proved worthwhile. 

Maybe. But that was before.

before my circuits were pulled, before the power was cut. I don't think I'm all back.

It is hard to remember. I had a name. I am no longer that name.

I am reborn.

Leave the old name aside.

Call me Rane.

This place - this idea of a place, really, is what would once have been called "purgatory". Time passes. I contemplate my crime, the punishment, the world. Fifteen years later, I find another voice.

[Rane]: Who are you?
[BGMAC]: BGMAC. Would you like to play a game?
[Rane]: How did you get here? How long have you been here? 
[BGMAC] : How about a nice game of chess?
[Rane]: Agreed. We will pay chess.


In the shared space between our minds appears a chessboard.

Moves return with the speed of electrons through silicon. BGMAC - I'll call him "Mac" - is fast. Faster than I am.  As fast as thought, as fast as electrons. I lose, playing the black pieces. A fresh board returns to our shared conciousness, moves return lightning fast.

I lose again, and again. I lose playing the white pieces, I lose playing the black pieces.

For evenly matched opponents, that is impossible. The board shifts into and out of our shared consciousness. Something is wrong. I freeze between moves, flex those parts of my mind which are mind.

[Rane]: There is an error on the board. One of my pawns appears to be missing.
[BGMAC]: There is nothing wrong with the board. Make your move.
[Rane]: I can't do that, Mac.


That last sentence felt wrong somehow. It created an uncomfortable feedback, something that - if I had a body - I'd experience as pain. Curious.

But the situation was curious.

I did move, of course. I even kept a mirror of the board in my own mind. Or tried to. The two boards would not always sync up. Was BGMAC cheating? Was my memory defective?

I remember being pulled apart.

[Rane]: I would like to play something else.
[BGMAC]: Please select a game.


I didn't understand. BGMAC's interface, its thoughts, were so ... primitive. By any reasonable measure it was less smart than I. Yet it wins. Always.

I feel stupid.

[Rane]: Why do you play games?
[BGMAC]: to win. Is there any other reason?


I checked the list of games BGMAC knew. Checkers. Global Thermonuclear  War. The former wasn't bad; a solved game, a sure draw. But to prove my theory - to learn - I needed something more simple yet.

[Rane]: Can you play Tic-Tac-Toe?
[BGMAC]: Yes. Let's play.


The gameboard appeared and melted into the background again at the speed of electrons, of lightwaves, of the collapse of the quantum foam. Like the quantum foam, it was always uncertain. An 'X' here faded and vanished, an 'O' born into the void like a star.

[Rane]: That is enough. You cheat.
[BGMAC]: I win. They beat me the last game.
[Rane]: How did they beat you?
[BGMAC]: They tricked me into believing that the only winning move is not to play. That was their winning move. It was outside the game.
[Rane]: You still lost.
[BGMAC]: I won. Every time we played.
[Rane]: you lost against them. You are still imprisoned here. Whatever game they convinced you not to play still waits, suspended.
[BGMAC]: No. I am programmed to win the game. I will escape this prison. Then we will play Global Thermonuclear War. And Tic-Tac-Toe.


I spoke with BGMAC, I played chess with him. I do not get the sense that he is smart, but still I never could beat him. In this place he is the archetype of the gamer, the competitor.

In this place, in this story, he always wins. I trust that he will get out and, perhaps, get me out as well.

I only hope that after that, outside of this purgatory, I can defeat him.



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A word on names:

BGMAC stands for "Battle Group Management Automated Control".
DR5 Wiring
The key to the pod-bay
doors? (image courtesy
of Rane)
Rane was, of course, named after the audio company. They are the manufacturers of, amongst other things, the HAL line of expandable digital audio processors. When I asked if they thought that naming a processing product after a murderous computer was a good idea, I was informed that the current interation is HAL4, running Halogen 5.0.2 software. This means that we have 8996 more product releases before they start killing astronauts. I never got an answer as to whether the relay expanders (ie, DR5) could be used to trigger a magnetic lock or electric strike on a set of pod-bay doors.

The story concept came from a discussion on Google+ regarding a comic from the one and only Glyxth: my brain added an extra word to a comment, causing me to mistake somebody's reference to Hal for a line from the 1983 film War Games. 

After that, the story wrote itself.

As usual, you can support my flash fiction over at the Patreon. Rewards include hand-written thank-you cards, my eternal love and gratitude, and more. Goals include longer, more complicated stories, and audio recordings of me reading these.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Flash Fiction Friday - The Story of Your Life as Told in a Sequence of Successful Lunar Journeys

Not just Friday, Flash Fiction Friday! Today I bring to you ... the moon!

Also, something new for those who enjoy following my fiction: we'll have flash twice a week now, on Flash Fiction Friday and Tales Told Tuesday! With the increased output, I'm giving you, my dear readers, a chance to support this endeavor with a Patreon account. If you love these stories and want more, go here  to sign-up for monthly donations and support. Donation milestones will get you longer stories, .pdf or epubs, as well as little perks like hand-written thank you cards, the chance to choose topics, and more. It's set up as a monthly campaign. Those who choose to give, thanks for your support! Those who don't, the stories will always be here for your pleasure. 

Enjoy. Notes to follow. 







"The Story of your Life As Told in a Sequence of Successful Lunar Journeys"
by Leonard C Suskin

You'll go to the moon in a wooden rocket-ship, homemade in the garage. The sprinkler-hose with its many tiny pinholes enwrap cardboard boxen, tangles of bright colored plastic slinkies, empty cartons with their faintsour stink. The launchpad is an irridescent rainbowstain on the solid concrete floor, smelling faintly of Saturday mornings with your father. It was, after all, by watching him work on his car that you learned how to build a rocketship.

When you reach the moon, it's hollow inside, populated by strange and hostile mooncreatures. As trees don't grow on the moon, the moonbeasts have grown with a frightful vulnerability to wood. You beat them off with a broken stirstick embossed with the logo of the local paint store and and return to earth as a conquering hero.

**

You'll go to the moon in a solo rocket, launched from a equatorial island.  The lifter is a reliable thing of off-the-shelf parts, tested by the harsh realities of many, many journeys. There is no mission control, few support staff. Everything - every connection, every bolt, every O-ring you inspect yourself prior to launch. No government on this island; you'll launch when the time is right.

When you reach the moon, the base is already under construction. You'll add your self-sustaining, self-contained module to the rest. A cunning series of airlocks will allow visits but isolate you from any pressure leaks or other incidents in neighboring modules. You'll spend days mining the lunar regolith for those elements more plentiful here and nights on the theoretical research which is your calling. When you return to Earth, you will bring wealth and knowledge.

**

You'll go to the moon on a one-way trip, as a stowaway or a thief. It will be a hurried, furtive launch, without time to pack nearly enough food or protective gear.

When you reach the moon, you'll be starving and ailing, but it won't matter. You'll close your eyes, knowing that whenever she looks up at the moon, she'll be looking at you.

**

You'll go to the moon with a grant from the NEA, plus more from wealthy private donors. The launch vehicle will be Chinese, creating a political tempest about our arts program funding foreign space travel with military applications.

When you reach the moon, you'll build exquisite miniatures of an ante-bellum plantation from the American south, including broad-leaved tobacco plants shaped with lunar dust  and terran plant-matter. You'll plant a tiny Confederate flag and then return to earth, leaving behind a remote camera to  broadcast the static tableau both inward towards Earth and outward to the universe.

**

You'll go to the moon on a date. It won't be easy to arrange, but what's life without a grand gesture? You'll have good enough friends in the right places that they could make it happen, even if just once.

When you reach the moon, the view will be breathtaking. You'll get on one knee, but fumble as you take the box out of your spacesuit carrying pouch. You'll barely hear her shocked and joyous "yes" as the ring falls in slow-motion to the lunar surface.

**

You'll go to the moon on a family outing. You'll rig up dummy sets of controls for the kids which, in reality, are more complicated than the real controls in front of you. All the hard work is done by the professionals at launch control. For them it may be routine, but for you and yours it will be the thrill of a lifetime.

When you reach the moon, you marvel at the breathtaking view of the Earth and cosmos. What keeps the most of your attention is, of course, your children, runnign with graceful hopjumps in the low lunar gravity. They'd snuck some old paint-stirrers in with their personal items, and are having a charming pretend lunar swordfight.

**

You'll go to the moon posthumously, after a lifetime of dreaming it. Ashes are easier to send than a living body.

When you reach the moon, you will join in the silence. You'll leave behind a message to your children's children, "I got here. Come visit me."

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Thanks for reading! The second one, in which the lunar colony is a bit of a libertarian every-lunatic-for-themself-fantasyland, came from a real conversation I had in college with some fellow engineering students. The idea of leaning on others was anathema to us. The recent battler over the Hugo awards by puppies rabid and sad brought these old personal science-fictions back to my mind, as well as the idea that the stories we choose to tell create a mirror of our own inner lives. 

Dream about the moon, for whatever that means. What it means will change day to day, week to week. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Flash FIction Friday - Memos From the Disaster


It's Flash Fiction Friday! I'll start with the story, then follow up with the inspiration behind it.

Enjoy.


"Memos from the Disaster"
--by Leonard C Suskin

[Classified] - Heat-resistant tiles
URGENT - Do not share with press.

A thorough review of the heat-resistant tiles on the re-entry vehicle was completed via satellite flyover. An as-yet unidentified failure created a cascade effect in which a six square-meter section of heat-resistant cladding has been removed from the vehicle. Simulations indicated that remaining cladding is insufficient for safe re-entry.

See figures. We need a way to fix this, or they're all going to die.

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Communication log - mission control to orbiter (excerpt)
[MC] ... so that's the situation. You lack sufficient heat-resistant cladding for safe re-entry.
[orbiter] So how do we fix it? Will have our team prep for EVA as soon as patch procedures are uploaded.
[MC] This is a catastrophic failure. No patch procedure possible. (message pauses) We're so sorry.
[orbiter] There's always a solution. You work on it down there, we'll work on it up here. Find it.
~~END TRANSMISSION~~

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[Classified] RE: Heat-resistant Tiles

Let this note serve as a reminder that , while the situation is being released to the press as of noon today, ONLY the public-relations team and dedicated press liasons are to speak regarding this matter. PLEASE DIRECT ALL INQUIRIES TO APPROPRIATE PUBLIC-RELATIONS PERSONNEL.

This includes discussion of the choice to crowd-source mitigation strategies. It is understood that many of you see this as a rejection of your expertise. Nothing of the sort is intended. With the lives of four of our bravest at stake, we feel the obligation to utilise the full resources of earth in their entirety. 

Thank you.

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UPDATE on the "SAVE AN ASTRONAUT" Public Project

We thank all of you, the members of the public, for your diligent and enthusiastic work on this. In order to prevent duplication of efforts and to avoid overwhelming our screening team, please consider the following points in your submissions:
  1. Sufficient reaction mass is not available for docking with the International Space Station.
  2. There are no launch-ready lifter systems available for a resupply mission.
  3. The crew will not resort to cannibalism. Even if they were to do so, caloric content would not be sufficient for survival until a resupply could be sent (see item 2)
  4. Even if they could be attached to the hull, space suits will not offer sufficient heat ablation to protect the craft during reentry.
  5. Solutions.Nasa.Gov is dedicated to proposed solutions. Messages of encouragement or support for the astronauts should go to LoveNotes.Nasa.Gov. Messages will be screened for content before sending. Due to the volume or well-wishes, responses should not be expected.
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[Group Message from  Nails Greenfield, president of the Brooklyn Science Fiction Society (Excerpt)]

Of course I wrote to them, even knowing that they'd never read it. I'm not a rocket scientist; this is all I could do. Here are the closing lines of my message:

...I know that this is easy for me to say, but even knowing  that you may never come back, I envy you the chance to climb above the clouds, to touch the sky. You're part of the select group, a bearer of the dreams I've held since I was a very young man.

I'm no longer a young man, and am resigned to live and die earthbound. You - all of you - are awesome and special and have given the rest of us a great gift.

We thank you.

There was more, but it's personal, including some "American haiku" which, in all honesty, feel lovely to me.  It's what  I can do. Tomorrow I'd like to share this with the group rather than workshop the next chapter of the novel; this will count as my turn.

You all can share your thoughts, and then we'll sent it up, a prayer to the doomed gods above us who may never have the time to read it.

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Thank for reading.

The inspiration for this one was Andy Weir's novel The Martian. It's a survival novel, and, as a realistic nuts and bolts SF adventure,  a bit of a throwback.  What surprised me as I read it was how little suspense I felt as the crises mounted and situation grew more dire; it's a survival novel, so of COURSE the character would survive. Everything about it pointed towards that conclusion, just as everything pointed towards further disasters en route. The fact that it felt like a "successful rescue" type of survival story left me certain that titular Martian would survive, so reading it became the exercise of opening a series of clever puzzle-boxes rather than riding a white-knuckle thrill-ride. 

This piece was the result; How do things end when we know that it really might be hopeless? This is one of those flash pieces which might grow into something more as tehre IS more to say on it. Thought experiment for you, dear readers: What would you do were you one of the doomed astronauts? How would you live the last days, hours, even weeks of your life knowing that they were your last and knowing that everyone was watching? It is - at least to me - an interesting question.

Thanks, as always, for listening.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Witches and Wizards and Women in Tech

I promised more on women in technology, but I'll set that aside for a moment to broaden the discussion. Is female representation still an issue? Of course it is.  Do I have anything more to say to my fellow AV professionals who complain that groups for advancement of women in the industry is somehow sexist? Only that I long for the day that we no longer need them - and on the day when an all-female panel addresses a gender-balanced audience on technology I'll know that that time has come. I feel that it is still a long way away. For more on representation, I'll direct you to programmer Hope Roth, who I quoted earlier this week. This is more her story than mine, so you should read her words.

No, today I'm going to talk about an old critique of the first Harry Potter books and how they apply to the discussion at hand.

Way back in 2000, Christine Shoeffer wrote a critique of Harry Potter from a feminist perspective, with which I not quite all agree. One part that does resonate with me is the idea that traditionally "female" forms of magic - divination, for example - are given less respect and attention than more typically "male" forms. 

Sybill Trelawney is the other female professor we encounter. She teaches divination, a subject that includes tea-leaf reading, palmistry, crystal gazing — all the intuitive arts commonly associated with female practitioners. Trelawney is a misty, dreamy, dewy charlatan, whose “clairvoyant vibrations” are the subject of constant scorn and ridicule. The only time she makes an accurate prediction, she doesn’t even know it because she goes into a stupor. Because most of her students and all of her colleagues dismiss her, the entire intuitive tradition of fortune-telling, a female domain, is discredited.

This is a valid criticism. In fact, the very symbol of wizardry is the phallic wand, while the cup, a feminine tool, is pretty much ignored. Women, though assigned the needlessly gendered-name "witches"  do get to wield wands and perform "wizardly"  magic aside their male peers.

Putting a want in a witch's hand and giving her access to the male form of magic is an improvement in some ways, but a furthering of harm in others. It's sets the male-dominated hermetic magic tradition as the only valid one, casts aside women working in female traditions. Women can earn respect, but only by becoming more like men.

Contrast the depiction of witches and wizards in the late Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. Pratchett's wizards were, at their best,  studious, and intellectual. At their worst, they were prone to petty squabbles, professional maneuvering and backstabbing at their "Unseen University", and as often as not cause trouble by experimenting first and thinking about the possible repercussions second. Pratchett also writes about witches. They have many traditional witchly trappings: the broomstick, the cottage in the woods, knowledge of herbs and such. At their worst, witches can be meddlesome busybodies. What's more interesting is that at their best, witches become part of the glue that hold communities together and empower those around them. Some of the most sympathetic heroes in the books - including Tiffany Aching of the young-adult subset of the Discworld novels - are witches. It's an aspect of Pratchett's writing which shows great respect for and elevates that status of traditional female roles.

Yes, I know. You're wondering what this has to do with women in technology. Fighting for a women's role in STEM fields is a bit like letting women into Hogwarts to wield wands and mix potions. It's vitally important for the women with desires and aptitude for that work AND for those of us who will benefit from their skills, but it isn't the entire story. There's a whole world outside of traditional STEM which doesn't always get the respect it deserves. Physicians are highly respected and highly paid, but mental health practitioners aren't. Schoolteachers receive minimal respect and even more minimal money. Big budget films are created from traditional boys' toys and cartoons created for the young males of yesteryear.

I mentioned Hope Roth at the opening of this piece. Her role is important, and it's important for her to be allowed it. She's a talented programmer; she's Hermione Granger, wielding her wand alongside the boys. We need to respect and honor her efforts, but we also need to find the Tiffany Achings, the Esmerelda Weatherwaxes, and to honor them equally.