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Eponymously Yours, W. Skeffington Higgins
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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in beamjockey's LiveJournal:

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    Wednesday, November 26th, 2014
    9:35 am
    My Cellphone Provider Carefully Explains Customer Service
    From the site of our cellphone company:

    "We are removing the chat functionality to better assist you 24 hours a day.
    Call 1-866-NNN-MMMM to speak to a live agent now."

    Yes, I never feel better-assisted than when someone removes the chat functionality.
    Monday, November 17th, 2014
    6:51 pm
    Return of the Bus Plunge
    As an eyewitness to the Philae lander's final moments of operation, the incomparable Emily Lakdawalla writes:
    From our position behind the glass, Steven, Chris and I watched the engineers as they, in turn, watched a set of graphs on their screens — graphs that were declining steadily. Shortly after the motion was commanded, the main bus voltage plunged.
    The last place I expected to spot a bus-plunge story was on the surface of a comet nucleus.
    2:45 pm
    The Key(s) of F
    I just realized that, although I use a Windows machine every business day, I never touch the function keys. I mean the ones labeled F1 through F12, above the number row on the QWERTY part of the keyboard.

    I don't even know what the F#-keys do, though I am perfectly capable of finding out.

    To me, the most significance they have is that the number keys and the F#-keys form a nice little trough I keep a pencil in.

    In the past, I have been a power user on Macs and on VT220 keyboards. Just never bothered, I guess, to figure out the possibilities on a Windows keyboard.

    What's your favorite F# key?
    Thursday, November 13th, 2014
    5:17 pm
    My Schedule for My Thirty-Eighth Windycon
    I've attended every Windycon, but one, since Windycon 3. And I'm looking forward to Windycon 41, which starts tomorrow at the Westin Lombard Yorktown Center in Lombard, Illinois.

    I'll be giving a talk Saturday afternoon; there's another panel I'd like to join, but I'll need to talk to Program Ops first.

    The Alien in the Human Imagination

    3:00 PM Saturday
    Grand Ballroom GH
    1 hour

    Extraterrestrial life has yet to be found, but aliens have been lurking in the human mind for millennia. The idea that other worlds may have inhabitants of their own goes back to antiquity. Renaissance philosophers debated it. 19th century science suggested an inhabited Mars. Science fiction and the Space Age contributed new speculations and new data. Join Bill Higgins to become part of the "plurality of worlds" conversation.
    Friday, October 31st, 2014
    10:34 am
    Thus Comes... The Advertiser!
    In the manner of those annoying "bugs" that crop up at the bottom of TV screens to advertise programs other than the one you're trying to watch, Livejournal today has introduced an announcement. It clings to the bottom of every LJ page I try to read.

    There are probably a lot of guys named Stan Lee; possibly one of them already occupies part of the namespace. Plus, impostors are everywhere. So the celebrity must choose an account name like therealstanlee.

    I am tempted to register for etherealstanlee, but my hand is stayed because I can't think of enough schtick to make it entertaining.
    Monday, October 20th, 2014
    5:33 pm
    An Early Voter in Chicago
    I stopped by the Pat Quinn campaign office a few nights ago to gather literature. It's time to visit voters in my precinct in hope of persuading them to vote for Democratic candidates.

    Unexpectedly, a Quinn staffer informed me of an Early Voting rally planned for Sunday night that would feature not only Governor Quinn, but also the President. Would I like tickets?

    That's how K and I found ourselves driving to Chicago State University last night.

    There was a long, long time waiting outside CSU's convocation center with thousands of other people. Fortunately the weather was fairly nice.

    Once we got in and got seated, the speechifying began quickly. As outermost members of the crowd, we had to climb far to get the only available seats.

    This is the view Ashlee Rezin for Sun-Times Media, who took this photo, had.

    This is the view we had.

    It helps that my father left me his field glasses, which have put eyetracks on many a Notre Dame game. I got a good three-dimensional look at the backs, mostly, of the politicians.

    The Governor gave a campaign speech that was enthusiastically received. No matter how many QUINN signs were waving in the air-- there were hundreds-- though, he was not the star of the show.

    Mr. Obama is extremely popular with the people attending this event. He spoke about Chicago and Illinois. He reminisced about fellow Democrats and about his time here. He went on, as you'd expect, to talk about policy and campaign issues. He seemed relaxed. He didn't appear to speak from notes or a teleprompter. He had an air of informality, just saying what's on his mind to the folks who happened to be in the room with him. (Perhaps it helps that he says "folks" a lot.)

    I've heard a fair number of politicians give speeches. The overwhelming impression Mr. Obama left me with was Golly, he is very, very good at this. As a public speaker, I may have been a little jealous. Granted, he's had a bit more practice...

    The President was kind enough to pose for a photo with me.

    Who's that guy over there with Bill Higgins?Collapse )

    Among the thousands attending we, after climbing to the very top of the bleachers right behind the podium, ran into people I know: the Quinn staffers who had given me the tickets. So that was fun. It was a fine evening.

    And this morning, Mr. Obama Voted Early before departing his home town.
    Thursday, October 16th, 2014
    1:19 pm
    Fire in Your Eyes
    My brother-in-law showed me his Amazon Fire phone, which features four cameras on the "selfie" side. This enables the phone to keep track of a user's eyes, for "Dynamic Perspective," a kind of 3-D display.

    Later it occurred to me to wonder:

    Are these cameras good enough to track the user's eye movements, and sell them to advertisers?
    Wednesday, October 1st, 2014
    7:24 pm
    Something Signor Boccaccio Left Behind
    Jo Walton has been reading Boccaccio's Decameron and has remarked amusedly on the difficulties a translator had in conveying the idea of "ravioli" to 19th-century English readers.

    When I was in Florence last year, I visited Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, the Laurentian Library, because
    (a) I wanted to see a great Old World library,
    (b) Ada Palmer had written about this one, and
    (c) it was among the few institutions open on a Monday.

    Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), "author and copyist."

    I learned that an exhibit called "Boccaccio: Autore e Copista" was in progress. The literature of fourteenth-century Italy was a whirlwind, as classical texts were revived and new works were written in the vernacular, and Giovanni Boccaccio stood at the center of the excitement. I haven't read his work, but I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about the beginnings of the Renaissance.
    Behind the cut, something for JoCollapse )
    Friday, September 12th, 2014
    4:18 pm
    "Say, That Looks Big Enough to Fly a B-25 through!"

    I'm reprinting this from the comments section on james_nicoll's blog, where, in a discussion of planes hitting tall buildings, ethelmay writes, intriguingly:
    Tangent: I once met a guy who had flown a B-25 UNDER the Eiffel Tower. He and his wife were friends of my father and stepmother.

    The spaces at the base of the Eiffel Tower appear to be defined by semicircular arcs. Their diameter is 74.24 meters, for a radius of 37.12 m.

    A North American B-25 has a wingspan of-- well, some online sources say 66 feet. Some say 67 feet. Some say 68. I found one that says 118 inches, but it turns out to be describing a 1:7 scale model. Let's take 68 feet, or 20.7 m, for a half-span of 10.35 m.

    Presuming your transgressive* friend is skilled enough to fly his bomber down the centerline of the archway (as projected onto the ground; a plumbline dropped from the highest point of the arch would touch this), and presuming the wingspan is the dominant constraint (e.g. the twin tailfins are not tall enough to intersect the arch if the wingtips clear it), what is the maximum altitude at which the wings safely pass through?

    This height is the length of a vertical side of a right triangle, whose horizontal side is a half-wingspan in length with a vertex on the arch, and whose hypotenuse is one radius in length with one end at this vertex and the other on the centerline at the ground.

    Pythagoras teaches us that the maximum height is therefore

    SQRT(37.12^2 - 10.352) = 35.6 meters, or 115 feet.

    This answer is a bit too simple. I have treated the semicircle of the arch as if it were in a vertical plane. As anyone can see, the arch is actually tilted, so viewed from the side the tower's base appears to be a trapezoid. So height of the semicircle, and the maximum safe height for the bomber, are actually lower by a factor depending on the angle of the trapezoid's sides. Improving this result is left as an exercise for any student able to determine this angle.

    I have also neglected the calculation of minimum height, which might involve gathering data on the umbrellas over vendors' pushcarts and such.

    I am sure your friend, as a methodical and safety-minded aviator, took all these things into account in making his own calculations.

    * Yet completely awesome.
    Monday, August 25th, 2014
    8:53 pm
    25 Years Ago: My Visit to Neptune
    It's been twenty-five years this week since Voyager 2 performed the first-- and, so far, only-- flyby of the planet Neptune.

    Neptune as seen by Voyager 2
    Neptune, with Great Dark Spot and Lesser Dark Spot.

    That week I was in Pasadena, playing journalist for a very peculiar news service. It was one of the greatest adventures of my life. Shortly after the encounter, I described my Neptune week in an article entitled I Was a 900-Number Bimbo from Outer Space "Phone Call from a Turquoise Giant."

    Neptune encounter trajectory
    Diagram of Voyager 2's Neptune and Triton flyby trajectory.

    The entire article is long, but I'll give you a few excerpts in the voice of 1989's William S. Higgins.

    I'd convinced the people running the National Space Society's Dial-A-Shuttle service that I could absorb NASA's scientific briefings and (quickly!) create clear and concise summaries for the benefit of eager space enthusiasts. I suppose I sounded convincing, because they added me to their team.
    Every time a Shuttle mission lifts off (unless it's classified), a team of NSS announcers is ready at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to keep the phone lines hot with information. When there is space-to-ground chatter, callers can hear it live. When astronauts are asleep or busy, or the spacecraft is out of tracking range, Dial-A-Shuttle plays a variety of short taped features which explain aspects of the mission or report on its latest progress. The announcer breaks in every now and then to identify Dial-A-Shuttle, plug NSS, or provide live commentary. Dial-A-Shuttle has been going since STS-7, and has developed a following among space enthusiasts who rely on (900)909-NASA for fresher information and more detail than other news media give. It made sense to try covering the Neptune encounter. But, of course, there are differences. Voyager has no "voice," so there would be no live audio coming from the spacecraft. On the other hand, we could expect much of scientific novelty to be pouring down the data stream in the three days we planned to operate. It's the nature of a flyby mission to report a lot in a short time, so we could provide a service by telling callers about the latest results in the "quick look" science.

    Read more about Neptune...Collapse )
    This first appeared in an NSS chapter publication called Spacewatch. It was reprinted in 2011. To celebrate the first Neptunian year since its 1846 discovery, Steven H Silver published an all-Neptune issue of his fanzine Argentus, which included my Turquoise Giant piece.
    Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014
    1:11 pm
    Song of the Sea: Turning Ink into Light, Again
    If you are a filmgoer who enjoyed the Irish animated feature The Secret of Kells as much as I did, it will please you to hear that Tomm Moore is directing a new film, which is nearly completed: Song of the Sea.

    For dyed-in-the-wool animation buffs,* I have further news. Just as he did with the previous film, Mr. Moore has been keeping a blog describing the ongoing progress of Song of the Sea.

    Yesterday I learned that a trailer is available:

    I have no idea when it might be released here. I have no idea whether it will get wide distribution, so I can see it at the nearby multiplex, or instead appear only at art-house theaters, which would require driving into Chicago. Either way, I'll be in line.

    * Perhaps "inked-on-the-cel animation buffs" would be more correct.
    Monday, July 14th, 2014
    9:28 pm
    Detcon 1: My Schedule at the NASFiC
    Detcon 1 is the name of this year's North American Science Fiction Convention. Detcon will blossom in my old home town, Detroit, Michigan, from Thursday, 17 July, through Sunday the 20th. I've agreed to participate in a bunch of programming.

    Physics, Mechanics, & Logistics of Flying Cars

    Fri 10:00 AM -- Mackinac East
    What would it be like if we DID have flying cars? What are the physical, technical, logistical, legal, and cultural factors we would need to consider? Are flying cars like cars or are they like planes? What will really make cars fly?

    Bill Higgins (moderator), Mel. White, Erik Kauppi, Emmy Jackson

    The Science of Hal Clement's Iceworld

    Fri 12:00 PM -- Mackinac East
    In Hal Clement's 1951 novel Iceworld, characters who breathe hot gaseous sulfur confront the mysteries of Earth, to them an unbelievably frigid planet. Among other things, the legendary master of hard SF foresaw robotic interplanetary exploration in a unique way. And now that astronomers know about thousands of extrasolar planets, does the homeworld of the sulfur-breathers lurk among them? Join Bill Higgins in exploring the chemistry, physics, and astronomy behind the classic story.

    Bill Higgins

    Where's my D@m! Flying Car?

    Sat 12:00 PM -- Ambassador Salon 1
    Science fiction vs. science reality: where did the future go wrong? We may have flying cars, but they're not the anti-grav vehicles that we really want! Humans have been experiencing long-term space flight for years now, but there are no colonies yet in orbit or on the moon. And where's my hoverboard?

    Jonathan Stars (moderator), Douglas Johnson, Ian Randal Strock, Cindy A. Matthews (Cynthianna), Bill Higgins, Dr. Charles Dezelah, Dr. Nicolle Zellner

    Annals of Michifandom

    Sat 1:00 PM -- Nicolet B
    From the Slan Shack and the propeller beanie to Detcon1, Michigan fans have contributed mightily to fannish history and lore. Join us for some rollicking multimedia time travel through fandom Michigan-style.

    Dick Smith (moderator), Cy Chauvin, Tammy Coxen, Gregg T. Trend, Chad Childers, Rich Lynch, Leah A. Zeldes, Tullio Proni, Amy Ranger, Denice Brown, Pat Sims, Roger Sims, Todd R. Johnson, Fred Prophet, Bill Higgins, Tracy Lunquist

    [I don't think Dick Smith has ever lived in Michigan, but he married into Michifandom, and he is greatly concerned with preserving fannish history. So he's a good MC for a two-hour review of the Wolverine State's many-faceted involvement with fandom. Should be fun.]

    The Personal Replicator

    Sun 11:00 AM -- Ambassador Salon 1
    With the introduction of 3-D printers, we're well on our way to Star Trek's replicator. Before long, we'll have access to the alchemist's dream: the ability to manipulate molecules. What are the implications for the world economy? Do we face the possibility of wiping out poverty? What about intellectual property? We will have to answer these questions, and many more, much sooner than you think.

    Jonathan Stars (moderator), Joshua Kronengold, Mel. White, Mike Substelny, Bill Higgins
    Sunday, July 13th, 2014
    2:46 am
    Lachryphagy. Bees. This Post Respectfully Dedicated to James Nicoll
    You know how james_nicoll sometimes suffers through a book of questionable quality, to produce a review that will warn or entertain his correspondents?

    You know how he labels these reviews "Because My Tears Are Delicious to You?"

    Well, over in Thailand, Hans Bänziger of Chaing Mai University and his colleagues described bees that would like to drink James's tears.:
    Lisotrigona cacciae, L. furva and Pariotrigona klossi (Meliponini, Apidae) workers drank lachrymation (tears) from human eyes in more than 262 naturally-occurred cases at 10 sites in N and S Thailand during all months of the year. [...]On man the bees were relatively gentle visitors, mostly landing on the lower eyelashes from where they imbibed tears for 0.5–2.5 min, often singly but occasionally in congregations of 5–7 specimens per eye.
    If you are squeamish enough not to want to see lachryphagous bees in action, DO NOT CLICK ON THIS LINK, which leads to pictures described in this article accurately, but somewhat inadequately,as "Selfie photos by Hans Bänziger." You can't unsee them.

    (It's possible everyone but me knew about this already.)
    Thursday, July 10th, 2014
    12:42 am
    Normal Service Has Been Resumed
    I am pleased to say that, on Twitter, mrbeamjockey is open for business. Until the next arbitrary and capricious suspension, at least.

    Now I will have to think of something to say.

    The spectre of Henry David Thoreau looms: "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."

    We techies hate hearing this.

    Wait a minute-- let me check on something.

    Aha! That supercilious bastard Thoreau had no compunction about jumping on the Twitter bandwagon himself. What a hypocrite!
    Wednesday, July 9th, 2014
    1:03 pm
    Suspended for Tweetcrime! My Brief Career on Twitter
    As 2014 opened, I asked: "Is This the Year for Twitter?"

    Yesterday, I opened a Twitter account. "Beamjockey" belongs to someone else, so I chose "mrbeamjockey" --that's MISTER Beam Jockey to you...

    I installed some profile images. Then I followed a few people.

    I have not yet posted any utterance. As the Twitterfolk say, I have not Tweeted.

    Overnight, some people were kind enough to follow me.

    This morning, I encountered a notice that surprised me.

    Your account (@mrbeamjockey) is currently suspended. To lift your suspension, please visit Suspended Accounts.

    Note that the number of Tweets remains zero.

    The Suspended Accounts page says:
    Hey Bill Higgins,

    Twitter has automated systems that find and remove multiple automated spam accounts in bulk. Unfortunately, it looks like this account, @mrbeamjockey, got caught up in one of these spam groups by mistake.

    We apologize for this inconvenience. It’s possible your account posted an update that appeared to be spam, so please be careful what you tweet or retweet. You might also want to review our help page for hacked or compromised accounts: // You will need to change your behavior to continue using Twitter. Repeat violations of the Twitter Rules may result in the permanent suspension of your account.

    The linked page discusses the practice of following, but it doesn't say anything about "hacked or compromised accounts."

    At the bottom, the Suspended Accounts page offers a couple of check-boxes and a ReCAPTCHA box to restore the account. One of the check-boxes does not have any text beside it. The other, a bit ominously, asks me to swear fealty: "I understand that my account may be permanently suspended if I continue using Twitter in a way that violates the Twitter Rules."

    Kid, you can have your account back, but We're Watching.

    Because I do not know which violation of the Twitter Rules I have already committed, I do not know how to keep this from happening again. I suppose I will check these boxes and attempt to resume my place in the Twitterverse, under the shadow of my criminal past.

    Will this work? Or am I doomed to be on the lam forever, unjustly accused, a fugitive from the Twitter Sheriff, runnin' like a dog through the Everglades?

    Stay tuned.
    Thursday, July 3rd, 2014
    1:19 pm
    Place the Double Quotation Mark
    This just in, from Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:
    A Pennsylvania man was arrested just blocks from the TPM headquarters yesterday morning with a note saying he wanted to "die in combat and want to go to heaven and meet god and a stash of knives, rifles, assault rifles, a shotgun, handguns and even a bottle rocket. He was driving the wrong way on 7th Avenue and his note also discussed his interest in cats.
    Raise your hand if you also want to go to Heaven and meet a bottle rocket.
    Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014
    3:02 pm
    Frederick I. Ordway III (1927 - 2014) on Video
    Frederick I. Ordway III has passed away. My condolences to his family and friends. I met him a few times, and was always impressed with his efforts to share his considerable knowledge.

    He was a prolific author of books and articles on spaceflight and its history. Among his articles, my favorite is "2001: A Space Odyssey in Retrospect," p. 47-105 in the 1982 book Science Fiction and Space Futures, edited by Eugene M. Emme. This is a memoir of his work on the epic movie, chiefly concerned with wrangling its science and technology.

    As I have previously written:
    [Arthur] Clarke urged Kubrick to hire Ordway and his artist pal Harry Lange, and soon they were moving to England.

    Ordway served as jack-of-all-space on the research and design of all the sets, models, etc. "I wasn't an expert on hibernation, but I knew who was. I wasn't an expert on food in space, but I knew people who were." He traveled around to various companies and universities, and got expert advice about future possibilities in the technologies the film would portray. [...]

    "Everything had to work. We didn't know where Stanley would point his camera. It could be anywhere on the set." For this reason, every button and display in the spacecraft has a plausible function, every bump and knob on the spacesuits has a reason for its appearance.

    One can hear Fred Ordway speak in a number of clips on Youtube.

    "Science on Screen" talk following a showing of 2001 at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee in March 2014.

    From SpacePod, a 2010 three-part interview about The Rocket Team, Ordway's influential book with Mitchell Sharpe. It's about the German engineers who developed the V-2 missile during World War II, and went on to build ballistic missiles for the U.S. Army and Saturn Vs for NASA:

    Part 1
    Part 2
    Part 3

    Ordway on the history of the National Space Society. He was a charter member of its ancestor, the National Space Institute, and served on NSS's Board of Governors.
    1:21 pm
    For Sale: Two Worldcon Memberships
    I regret to say that we won't be attending Loncon 3. We have two memberships for sale at $192 each.

    They include voting rights for the Hugo Awards and 2016 Worldcon site selection. The right to download the Hugo Voter Packet is also included.

    The 73rd World Science Fiction Convention is LonCon 3, in London, England, 14-18 August 2014.

    If you know anyone who might desire a membership, please pass this along.

    To contact me by e-mail: higgins at fnal dot gov.
    Thursday, June 26th, 2014
    6:24 pm
    Reviewing Hillary
    I remember studies by Valdis Krebs a few years back on what we can learn from Amazon's "customers-who-bought-this-also-bought" network of political books. I wonder if this network would be any less polarized, or any less depressing to contemplate, in 2014.

    For some reason I recently looked up Hillary Clinton's new book, Hard Choices, on

    The 1024 Customer Reviews have a distinctly bimodal distribution:
    245 5-star
    29 4-star
    26 3-star
    35 2-star
    689 1-star

    Every one of the Most Helpful Customer reviews displayed on the main page (for the Kindle edition) is a one-star review, e.g., "Excruciatingly Boring, Overly Long, Insipid Pabulum." (sic)

    I read a few, and realized that they'd been penned by reviewers who were politically opposed to Hillary Clinton. So I looked at some of the five-star reviews.

    "Yes, the finest fantasy literature in the 21st century." "George R. R. Martin, move over. . . there is a new Mistress of truly Epic Fantasy."


    I'd never thought much about this: Amazon's customer reviews are a political battleground. Meta-arguments about reviewing are also erupting there.

    Also, the work of those determined to signal, by means of one-star reviews, that this is a horrible book is being undermined by those of their fellow Clinton-bashers who are playing the 5-Star Fantasy Novel joke.

    Maybe I'll read some of the 2-star, 3-star, and 4-star reviews to find out how good the book is.
    Tuesday, June 24th, 2014
    10:45 pm
    Blogging (As WHL Says) from an Undisclosed Location
    I am with Chris Olsen, his daughters, and jonsinger.

    Chris is making daguerreotype portraits of Jon. This requires a blazing array of lights, including multiple banks of bright blue LEDs. There are, of course, several steps of treatment with wet chemicals. It is helpful to have the assistance of daughters.

    These pictures look very nice.

    Daguerreotypes. In 2014.

    These are the kinds of people I run around with.

    I am a lucky guy.
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