Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Flash Fiction Tuesday: A Nice Game of Chess

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


A Nice Game of Chess
by Leonard C Suskin


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.


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."


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.


"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.

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.

[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.

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.
[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.


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.

Monday, June 15, 2015

All-Male Panels - on Representation

The is an AV post but also a feminist post; it seems that this is the time of year for me to discuss such things. Last year, if we'll recall, I wrote about the use of female models to attract attention at trade-shows - so called "booth babes". What got my attention this year? I had an interesting and sometimes frustrating set of discussions on Twitter regarding the upcoming Infocomm keynote speech to kick off the show in Orlando. The keynote is something different and sounds legitimately interesting: New York Times lead technology writer Nick Bilton is moderating a panel discussion/debate on the Internet of Things, including implications for privacy and security as well as growth potential and open specifications for this segment of the industry. Panelists include Fred Bargetzi, CTO of Crestron Electronics, Ron Gazzola, VP of marketing for Samsung, Kevin Hague of Harman, and Mike Walker of Cisco. It's a smart, accomplished group of men representing some of the largest and most influential manufacturers in the industry. 

So what's the problem? Heather Sidorowicz, owner of residential AV contractor Southtown AV, pointed it out:

Yes, five out of the five speakers are men. I seconded my discomfort with this (coupled by honest embarrassment that I'd not noticed it myself), and was immediately greeted with fairly tense skepticism about the idea of seeking diversity for its own sake. The concern was that seeking to include women on a panel would potentially pass over more qualified candidates if all of the best choices were men. I'll agree that he idea that one should select the most qualified candidates for any position - be that on a discussion panel, as new hires, or as bullpen arms for a major league baseball team - is an appealing one. It's also one with which I fundamentally disagree. 

The first question we can ask ourselves is what one means by "most qualified". How does one measure qualifications to sit on a panel and discuss technology? For something like the Infocomm keynote, speakers should have a firm grasp of the subject matter, an engaging public speaking style, and a position in the industry giving them access to information about not only current trends but short- and long-term roadmaps. The last qualification - place in the industry and access to information - is measurable. The other ones, interestingly, are not. This means that any move to choose "the best people" are, almost by definition, subjective. This is not akin to choosing, for example, the fastest person to run a leg of a relay race. There's no stopwatch, no scale, no yardstick against which to measure the "best" speaker. I'd make exactly the same argument on a broader level for choosing the "best" new hire to be the "best" employee. There are scores of factors, only the most superficial of which are easily measurable. Our biases - even if only subconciously - will affect our choices.

I gave "bullpen arm for a baseball team" as one hiring example. This may seem to be a case in which you CAN make objective measurements, but let's look at this as an analogy: you're looking to find the best pitcher to add to the team. You measure by strikeouts, walks and hits per innings pitched, and a dizzying array of advanced statistical metrics. Say that the best four choices for two available roster positions are all hard-throwing right-handers. Do you sign all four of them, or do you select a soft-tossing lefty who might not be in some ways as "qualified", but adds something the others don't.

This is one reason why all-male panels are problematic. Seeing a group of middle-aged white men presented as the topic experts they are reinforces the subconcious idea that this is what a technology thought-leader looks like: a middle-aged white man. As a middle-aged white man myself, I benefit from this. I was not only always encouraged to pursue math and science education, I was pushed to try again and harder if I struggled with something. Professionally, I was offered the chances to take more technical roles and responded quite favorably when I asked to. Would it have been the same if I were from a different group? Perhaps and perhaps not. What I do know - and know that I can take for granted  - is that experts, presenters, speakers, and executives will very often be people who look like me. I'll never have the experience that AV control system programmer Hope Roth described on Twitter:

Roth shouldn't be an outsider. I've spoken with her about technology and the industry and found her to be not only very smart, but also very heavily engaged with the industry in a way that not enough people are. I want more women to engage, and I want more to see examples of how they CAN engage. An all-male panel sends a message to Roth and those like her that their voices aren't the ones that we want to hear.

We should want to hear those voices. While we don't have any women in a technical capacity at SMW's office here in New York, my cubicle-neighbor is an African-American millenial. Sharing a workplace with someone much younger than I am with a different background gives me different ways of looking at not only projects and various corporate cultures, but the the world at large. I'd argue that his presence makes me not only a better AV designer by giving me different ways to look at corporate cultures, but also a better person by pulling me out of my comfort zone.

The Infocomm keynote panel looks terrific, but like so many other all-male panels it runs the risk of keeping us too far within our comfort zones and of NOT reaching out to those who aren't already part of the tribe. We can do better. And, I hope, we will.

Expect more on this topic in posts to come. I will close with one note of caution: while we need to listen to the thoughts of our sisters in the industry on this, we need to approach respectfully. It's tempting to ask a woman in the field what she thinks of representation, how it feels to be a woman in the field, etc. Doing so runs the risk of making her the Ambassador of Femininity at best, and the Travelling Female Museum Show at worst. Remember that all of us - men and women alike - are first and foremost humans. That doesn't mean that representation isn't important, but it does mean that we all need to remember that no group marches in lockstep, and to ask that one speak for all is another form of unfairness.