Go for launch

Today, SpaceX launched its Demo-2 mission, the first manned mission leaving from US soil since 2011, and our first capsule launch since 1975. If all goes well, the Dragon will dock with the ISS tomorrow morning, then spend the summer there before a splashdown in September. In this post, I’d like to talk about my feelings and opinions about this historic moment and what I think it means for all of us.

As you may have guessed from reading my posts here and elsewhere, as well as my books, I am a space nut. I don’t deny it. Space has captivated me since I was a child, when I would read books about the Apollo missions, encyclopedia articles about the solar system and the planets. Cartoons involving space, most of them made in the early ’60s (before we had ventured beyond Earth orbit), captivated me. TV and movies mostly meant Star Trek, Star Wars, and eventually the Stargate franchise, as well as the far more realistic Apollo 13—still one of my favorite movies—and even Space Camp.

Since those days, I’ve expanded my repertoire. I’ve read Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon, the go-to account of the Apollo program and its precursors, at least a dozen times. I eagerly watched its TV version, From the Earth to the Moon, a few years before that, and my eyes were glued to the screen for 2007’s When We Left Earth. Add in the other historical accounts, the futurists’ ideas, the rocketry textbooks, and even games like Kerbal Space Program, and you get the picture. Space will always grab my attention.

But the real-life space program is often depressing. NASA is, in certain circles, a running joke. “Boldly going nowhere since 1972” is a faux slogan I’ve seen and spread in reference to what was, in my teenage years, the only government program I truly supported. The Russians aren’t really any better; they at least have the excuse of communism and its aftermath. The Chinese are too secretive and suspicious, and no one else is even bothering with manned spaceflight.

I thought the X-Prize would change that. I watched the Scaled Composites flights with stars in my eyes, believing this would finally be the dawn of a new Space Age. Because the first one was, in my opinion, one of the three most pivotal periods in modern human history—the others being the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, in case you were wondering. The heady days of 1957-72 directly begat the Information Age of 1992-2016, as well as our present time, which I feel is better labeled a Misinformation Age. A new space race, even one driven mostly by capitalistic concerns of profit and shareholder value, will bring a new technological revolution. There’s no doubt in my mind. And the benefits will be felt far beyond the space-loving community. Apollo made computers popular. What will the first mission to Mars give us?

In 2004, it looked like that was coming true in real time. SpaceShipOne was reaching the Karman Line, the boundary between our world and the vast void beyond, and pocketing a few million dollars in the process. Richard Branson was hyping trips around the moon. Robert Bigelow had inflatable space stations and lunar colony modules on the drawing board. Elon Musk, Peter Diamandis, Jeff Bezos, John Carmack…entrepreneurs were getting in the game, and so were tech giants. Google announced a prize for an unmanned lunar lander (nobody won it, alas), and one of the team leaders even shared my name. The dream was alive.

And then it wasn’t.

The Great Recession was a setback for space as much as any other sector. Launch dates began to slip faster than the stock market. SpaceX had a few bad accidents, plus a lot of red tape. Even the government stuff was going badly: important science missions like SIM and TPF were scrapped, Kepler barely got off the ground, and we still don’t have that Europa lander. The Obama administration didn’t help matters, as they prioritized earth science and political causes such as global warming and diversity over the core mission of NASA.

In 2008, I looked back on the Bush presidency with an opinion that has remained unchanged over the past twelve years: the Vision for Space Exploration was the only truly good thing he did. That was killed early in Obama’s first term—he campaigned on it!—and replaced with…nothing. Seriously. Rather than reach for the stars, our previous president was content to go in circles. There’s a metaphor there. I think it’s pretty obvious.

The final Shuttle launch was a sad time for me, a dark time. Sure, I’ve had much darker moments since, but that day felt like…well, like I was watching a friend die, and I could do nothing to stop it. It was a day that a childhood dream was finally, fatally crushed. Astronauts were going nowhere, and now they couldn’t even do that without hitching a ride from our former enemies!

In the years since, I had to get my space fix wherever I could find it. I went back to reading science fiction, which I had avoided for years because of the sheer despair it caused when I thought about how far away we are from doing anything like what I was reading. Eventually, reading became writing, a process that culminates with the imminent release of Innocence Reborn, my first novel set in space.

But I keep following SpaceX. They’re the only ones left from those wonderful early days of the commercial space race, and they’re actually doing something. Elon Musk has grand plans, along with both the will and the means to pull them off. Whether his team can, I don’t know, but I’m hoping.

We need space. Space is our future, in both the literal and the metaphorical senses. Moon missions, Mars missions, asteroid mining, and space hotels all offer something to humanity as a whole. We gain scientific knowledge from exploring new places, material resources from the untapped riches awaiting us, and an important intangible: something to strive for.

Every night, we can look up and see infinity. Pinpricks of light impossibly far away, for the most part. But some of the things in the sky are much closer. They’re within our grasp, but only if we want to reach. Today should long be remembered as the day America finally started to stretch out its hand again.

Release: Secrets Uncovered (Tales of Two Worlds 3)

Here we reach the halfway point of this newest bridge to the Otherworld. Tales of Two Worlds continues today with “Secrets Uncovered”:

Some things never change, and Jeff believes he has found many of those in the other world. And he has also found archaeological evidence from the most ancient days, tantalizing clues to the mysteries he has longed to solve for over a year. As a professor at an alien university, his responsibilities stand in the way of devoting himself fully to research, but he knows he needs something to show when his friends from home arrive for the third time.

I’ll admit that this one is more “slice of life” than my usual writings, but sometimes you have to take a break, right?

This tale, like the previous two dozen in the Otherworld series, can be found on my Patreon, where you can get the whole set by pledging only 3 dollars. That’s not even a Memorial Day deal—it’s always that cheap!

For the second half of 2020, I’ll be releasing the second half of this series. Next on the list is “A Life Complete”, coming in July. See you then, and remember to keep reading!

Summer Reading List 2020

Once again, Memorial Day is upon us. Although the world has been turned upside down in the past few months, some places are beginning to return to normal. Slowly but surely, cooler heads are prevailing. And one way to speed the process of recovery is to get back into your routine.

Thus, here at the unofficial start of summer, it’s time once again to start the Summer Reading List Challenge! This will be the 5th year I’ve done this particular self-imposed challenge, and I’ve refined the rules over time, polishing them into something simple yet daunting.

The rules aren’t so much rules as recommendations. Guidelines, except that that has become a loaded term lately.

  1. The goal is to read 3 new books between Memorial Day (May 25) and Labor Day (September 7) in the US, the traditional “unofficial” bounds of summer. (Anyone in the Southern Hemisphere reading this: yes, you get a winter reading list.)

  2. A book is anything non-periodical, so no comics, graphic novels, or manga. Anything else works. If you’re not sure, just use common sense. What’s important is that you’re honest with yourself.

  3. One of the books should be of a genre you don’t normally read. For example, I’m big on fantasy and sci-fi, so I might read a romance, or a thriller, or something like that. Nonfiction, by the way, also works as a “new” genre, unless you do read it all the time.

  4. You can’t count books you wrote, because they obviously wouldn’t be new to you. (Yes, this rule exists solely to keep me from just rereading my books.)

That’s it. You have over three months. I’ll be posting my progress here at Prose Poetry Code, as well as on the fediverse at mikey@letsalllovela.in when that server actually works.

Have fun, enjoy the summer, and keep reading!

A difficult decision

Sometimes, you have to make a judgment call, and it may not be the one you wanted to make.

In my two months of writing hiatus, I contemplated many things, some of which I have discussed in recent posts. In the past week and a half, however, I’ve come out of my personal lockdown to rediscover my favorite hobby. But this disruption to our world has caused me one other problem I didn’t anticipate when The Powers That Be closed everything for what we now know to be something no worse than a bad flu.

As I have said before, a number of my books and shorter works are set in a shared universe. This collective setting, which I sometimes call the “Paraverse” in my mind, now encompasses my extensive Otherworld series, the Endless Forms paranormal thriller series, the Modern Minds short story collection, the RPG knockoff The Soulstone Sorcerer, my historical fantasy novel Heirs of Divinity, possibly my free semi-romance novella Fallen, and a couple of odds and ends I rarely talk about.

These all take place in the same setting, the same world. It’s a world essentially the same as ours, except that there are differences at the margins. So monsters like those in The Shape of Things exist, but they’re so rare that almost nobody believes in them. There’s a portal to another planet hidden deep in the Mexican forests, but it only works one day out of the year (okay, two, but spoiler alert), and it’s almost impossible to find anyway. A secret society dedicated to psionic phenomena existed back in the Roaring Twenties, but the Great Depression basically ended it. And so on.

The link between all of these is Project Daylight, a dark web forum dedicated to exposing the “truth” behind all the weirdness in the world. They’re not always right—some of them believe the moon landings were faked, a point of view I find so offensive I can’t even write about it in detail—but they occasionally knock it out of the park. For the most part, though, they’re the crazy nutter types you’d see associated with Alex Jones, Gab, QAnon, and other internet nastiness.

The members of Project Daylight didn’t exist when I first started Otherworld. That only came about much later, when I needed a reason for the kids who had visited another planet to be found out. Since then, I’ve made them a larger part of that series, even giving the forum’s administrator his own story: “Alone With Myself”. Another member appears in Change of Heart, the latest Endless Forms novel; this one, named Shane (but going by the moniker Lurker), is based on my neighbor, who really does believe some crazy things.

Now, the more historical entries in the Paraverse obviously don’t have a group that formed in 2016, and there’s no evidence the forum even knows about the secret 18th-century college in London claiming descent from Simon Magus through a “lost” book of the Bible actually written around 800 AD. (Yes, in case you’re wondering, that is part of the plot for Heirs of Divinity.) Likewise, they weren’t around to see the foundation or fall of Matrema in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

But they’re around now, and therein lies the problem. See, I had already written multiple stories set in 2020 before this year went off the rails. The Beast Within and Change of Heart both take place right about now. “The Candle’s Flame” finished up just as the Wuhan virus was making its alleged debut in the US (although we now see it was here as early as November, a few weeks before I caught it!), and its immediate successor, The Second Crossing, starts right about now. None of them mention a global pandemic, a panic-induced lockdown, or anything of the sort. Which really breaks the idea that these books are set in our world.

But I think I’ve found a way to save face.

Bear with me here. The problem is that no one could have foreseen our present crisis. If I had written it into a story, even I would have dismissed it as too outlandish. Too unrealistic, and I value realism in my stories. On the other hand, it seems wrong not to mention the coronavirus in some way going forward, seeing as how it defines the current generation the same way 9/11 defined the last. (Take that as you will. It’s an entirely different debate.)

My solution is simple: yes, the virus does exist in the Paraverse. But it was less virulent, less widespread, and less deadly. Thus, it was more in line with what we actually see, rather than what we were originally told. The media reaction in the US was closer to what we saw with SARS way back when. Oh, it was talked about in the news in February and March, but as a problem almost exclusively tied to Asia. Project Daylight found some information about…certain actors trying to hype it as something more dangerous, but that narrative fizzled before it had a chance to affect us too badly.

In this, I recognize that I’m effectively rewriting history to suit not only the best needs of the story, but also my personal beliefs. And that’s okay. I have no problem with it. The Paraverse diverged from our world long ago. I just want to keep it close enough that we can imagine, that we can look at it and wonder how much of it really is happening right under our noses.

Forever in me

I am a humanist.

Different people interpret that term in different ways. For me, it means something pretty simple: my primary focus is on humanity. Not the spiritual, not the metaphysical, and not the environmental, except insofar as it pertains to human habitation.

I consider myself agnostic as it pertains to the question of God. I just don’t know, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I don’t have faith, though. I can’t. Nothing I’ve seen in my 36 years of life has shown me any proof of a cosmic force of pure good, because there’s only one purely good thing in my life, and I know I’ll lose her once I inevitably fail in my attempts at becoming something better.

That’s a terrible thing by any measure. But it’s worse for someone like me. Part of my personal humanist feelings is a sense of purpose. Rather, the overall lack of purpose I feel in my life. Unlike believers, I can’t take it as a given that I was born with some kind of destiny or fate, or even a curse, despite sometimes feeling like I’ve been laboring under one of those for decades.

No, purpose is, for me, what you make of it. And that’s where my beliefs combine with my situation to create a perfect storm of despair. As humans—as living beings—we’re born with only one innate purpose: reproduction. To procreate is to fulfill our evolutionary goal, our biological imperative. That transcends any religion, and I would feel the same if I were an adherent of one. “Be fruitful and multiply” is the way it’s commonly worded by Christians; I do agree with the sentiment, if not the source.

I want children. I need to be a father. I have felt this way for years. Maybe that stems from my life history, the way my own father abandoned me when I was 12. Whatever the case, it’s not an urge I can stifle. Because, in my mind, if I don’t help create the next generation, I’ve failed at life in a way that no amount of fame or wealth (if I had either) could overcome.

Therein lies the problem. I’m 36, and I know my time as a virile male is limited. My partner is the same age, and she’s worried we’ll run out of time, too. I’m essentially unemployed, with 20 months and counting of rejections. The only reason my bank account has a balance over a hundred dollars is because I haven’t spent my stimulus check. I have goals in mind, yet no conceivable way to achieve them. And I know I’m not getting any help. If I’m going to improve myself, it’ll have to be on my own.

It is the cruelest joke that so many people in this world have and squander both the stability and the legacy that I long for, that I feel I’ve earned, while those like me must struggle for every scrap, constantly beaten back down when we dare to lift ourselves out of the mire. Religious folk would say that this world’s suffering is nothing in comparison to the next life’s reward. To them I would say this: why can’t we have rewards now, too?

I don’t ask for much. Just what the average American man gets almost as an afterthought. I don’t have to be a billionaire. I don’t need 7 kids who all end up as Olympic athletes, Oscar-winning actors, or legendary pop stars. I would consider myself content with a nice suburban home, a son and daughter with the wife I adore, and a career that challenges my mind while putting food on the table. I’d be happy with a normal life like that.

I only wish I could have the chance.

The price of protest

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming…four dead in Ohio

I have written a lot in the past few years to commemorate the 50th anniversary of various spaceflight milestones: the Apollo 8 lunar orbit, Apollo 11’s landing in 1969, and so on. I do that because I love the American space program, of course, but also because I believe its accomplishments rank among the greatest in human history. They are certainly shining lights in the 20th century.

But we must also remember the darker days, lest, to paraphrase Santayana, we be doomed to repeat their mistakes.

This day 50 years ago, on May 4, 1970, four students at Kent State University were shot and killed by National Guard soldiers during a protest against the Vietnam War. Nine others were injured, a college campus became a battlefield, and the entire nation lost whatever vestiges of innocence it still had after years of needless death in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

I was not alive for these events. They were 13 years before I was born; those who lost their lives were over a decade older than my parents! Yet I have seen the documentaries. I’ve read the stories. That is how history survives, through the telling and retelling of events beyond our own experience. In the modern era, we have photographs, television recordings, and other resources beyond mere—and fallible—human memory.

For Kent State, I’ve watched the videos from the tragedy itself, and few things have ever left me more disgusted, more saddened, and more…angry. It boggles my mind how anyone, even soldiers trained in the art of war and encouraged to look at their enemy as less than human, could think this was a good thing, a just thing. Yet they did not hold their fire. If they stopped to think, “These are young Americans, people just like me, and they’re doing what’s right,” then it never showed in their actions.

Worse, however, is the public perception that followed. In the wake of the massacre, polls showed that a vast majority of people in this country supported the soldiers. Yes. About two-thirds of those surveyed said they felt it was justified to use lethal force against peaceful protestors who were defending themselves.

Let’s break that down, shall we? First, protests are a right. The “right of the people peaceably to assemble” is guaranteed in the First Amendment; it doesn’t get the attention of speech, religion, and the press, but it’s right there alongside them. And remember that the Bill of Rights, as I’ve repeatedly stated in my writings, is not a list of those rights the government has granted its citizenry. Rather, it’s an incomplete enumeration of rights we are born with—“endowed by our Creator”, in Jefferson’s terms—that cannot be taken away by a government without resorting to tyranny.

Some may argue that the Kent State protests were not peaceful. After all, the iconic video is of a student throwing a canister of tear gas at the police officers called in to maintain order, right? But that argument falls flat when you see that the tear gas came from those same cops. It was fired to disperse the crowd. The protestors didn’t like that, so they risked physical danger (not only the chance of getting shot, but even just burns from the canisters themselves) to clear the space they had claimed as their own.

And finally, the notion that killing students was the only way to end the protest would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. They were unarmed. Deescalation should always be the first option. Whatever you think about the protest itself, whether you feel it was wholly justified or dangerously un-American, you cannot convince me that shooting live rounds into a crowd is an acceptable answer. The only way, in my opinion, you could convince yourself is if you accept the premise that these students were enemy collaborators, and the National Guard’s response was legitimate under the rules of engagement.

But that presumes a dangerous proposition: that American citizens opposing a government action they feel is morally wrong constitutes a threat to the nation. And here we see that those lessons learned in Kent State 50 years ago have been forgotten since.


Today, we don’t have the Vietnam War looming over us. The eternal morass of Iraq and Afghanistan, despite taking twice as much time (and counting), has long since lost the furious reactions it once inspired. Trump’s presidency was worth a few marches, the Occupy and Tea Party movements were quashed or commandeered, and even the Great Recession didn’t prompt much in the way of social unrest.

But a virus did.

Rather, the government response to the Wuhan virus, whether on the federal, state, or local level, has, in some places, been enough to motivate protests. The draconian lockdown orders in Michigan, California, North Carolina, and elsewhere, unfounded in science and blatantly unconstitutional, have lit a fire in those most at risk from the continued economic and social devastation. Thousands marching, cars causing gridlock for miles, and beaches flooded with people who don’t want to hurt anyone, but just yearn to breathe free. It’s a stirring sight, a true show of patriotism and bravery.

Yet too many people see it as something else. They believe the protests dangerous. The governors know what’s best for us, they argue. They have experts backing them up. Stay at home, they say. It’s safe there. Never mind that it isn’t. As we now know through numerous scientific studies, the Wuhan virus spreads most easily in isolated environments and close quarters. It’s most deadly for the elderly, and some two out of every three deaths (even overcounting per federal guidelines) come from nursing homes and similar places. For the vast majority of people under the age of 60, it is, as the CDC stated on May 1, barely more of a risk than “a recent severe flu season” such as 2017-18. Compared to earlier pandemic flu seasons (e.g., 1957, 1969), it’s not that bad, especially to children.

Of course, people of all sorts are dying from it. That much is true, and my heart cries out for every last one of them. Stopping our lives, ending our livelihoods, is not the answer. People, otherwise healthy people who aren’t senior citizens, die from the flu every year. My cousin did in 2014, and he was 35. That’s the main reason I feared for my life when I was sick back in December; looking back, the symptoms my brother and I showed match better with the Wuhan virus than with the flu, and each week brings new evidence pointing to the conclusion that it was in the US far earlier than we were told. If that is what we had, it didn’t kill us, just like it won’t kill the overwhelming majority of people infected.

Epidemiology isn’t my goal here, however. I merely wanted to remind anyone reading this that the virus, while indeed a serious threat, is not the apocalypse hyped by the media. Common sense, good hygiene, and early medical treatment will help in most cases, and that’s no different from the flu, or the pneumonia that almost put me in the ICU in 2000, or even the common cold.

Now that all indications are showing us on the downslope of the curve, I’d rather look to the coming recovery effort, and the people—the patriots—who have started that conversation in the most public fashion. The Reopen America protestors are doing exactly what Americans should do when they perceive the threat of government tyranny: take to the streets and let your voice be heard. Civil disobedience is alive and well, and that is a good thing. It’s an American thing.

The movement is unpopular, alas. Reopen protestors are mocked and derided. Those who report on them in a favorable light are called out. A quick perusal of Twitter, for instance, will turn up some truly awful behavior. Suggestions that anyone protesting should be required to waive any right to medical treatment. Naked threats of calling Child Protective Services on parents who let their kids play outside. Worst of all, the holier-than-thou smugness of those who would willingly lock themselves away for months, if not years, over something with a 99.8% survival rate, solely on the basis of an appeal to authority.

A past generation would call such people Tories; in modern parlance, they are Karens. I call them cowards. Not because they fear the virus—I did until I learned more about it, and I accept that some people probably do need to be quarantined, and that some commonsense mitigation measures are necessary for a short time.

No, these people are cowards because they have sacrificed their autonomy, their rationality, and their liberty on an altar of fear, offerings to their only god: government. It’s one thing to be risk-averse. We beat worse odds than 500-to-1 all the time, but there’s always a chance. To live your life paralyzed by fear, unable to enjoy it without worrying about all the things that might kill you, that’s a terrible way to live. I know. I’ve been there. But never in my darkest moments did I consider extending my misery to the 320 million other people in this country. That is true cowardice, to be so afraid of the future that you would take it from everyone else.

Protest is a powerful weapon. The Vietnam War proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. Fifty years ago today, four Ohio students paid the ultimate price for wielding that weapon. But they died believing what they did was right. They died free, because they died in a public expression of the freedom each of us is gifted the day we’re born.

Better that than dying alone in your safe space.

From the archive: Trireme

(I’m bored, and I’m tired of talking about the Wuhan virus. So let’s delve into my personal code archive. First, of course, we need a prologue, so bear with me.)

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in recreational mathematics. And that phrasing is entirely literal: I’m 36, and I have memories from my early childhood involving numbers, math problems, and the fascination that the field produced in me. From a young age, I read through math textbooks for fun (algebra at age 4-5, calculus as early as 9), but I was more drawn to the strange and wonderful ways people used numbers. Puzzles involving math were great fun. I read condensed versions of The Phantom Tollbooth and Flatland while my contemporaries were struggling through Dr. Seuss. My aunt had a kind of children’s encyclopedia, where each volume revolved around a different topic; to this day, I have no idea what was in the other 12 or so, because I only ever read the math one.

Naturally, that led me to computers early on, and you could say that my career as a programmer started when I was 8, the day the teacher of my gifted class handed me a black binder, pointed me towards the Apple II in the back of the room, and sent me on my way into the world of 10 PRINT "MICHAEL RULES!"; 20 GOTO 10. I was hooked, and nearly three decades have not dimmed that fire one bit.

But I still have a passion for numbers, for mathematics in the recreational sense. As an adult, I discovered Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming, the seminal (and unfinished after some 50 years!) text on the underlying mathematics of programming, and that connected the twin loves of my online life.

Honestly, the books aren’t much help for learning how to code. The edition I have uses a positively ancient assembly language for its examples, and it’s easier for me to understand the concepts from the prose descriptions. But the lessons are still usable today…assuming you need them. Or, in my case, want them.

Chapter 4 is my favorite, as it discusses, well, numbers. A significant chunk of the chapter (itself half a book long) is concerned with the representation of numbers, whether in writing or in computer circuitry, and it was here that I rediscovered the spark of my childhood. And that leads me to one of my solo projects from 2019: Trireme.

What in the world?

Trireme is, to put it simply, a simulation of a fictitious CPU that uses non-binary arithmetic. Now, that doesn’t mean it rejects society’s notions of sexuality. Instead, it rejects society’s notion of how a computer should work. You see, all computers in use today deal in binary numbers. Base-2. 1s and 0s. (Sometimes, you’ll hear talk of hexadecimal, but that’s a human conceit: a single hex digit is nothing more than a group of 4 binary bits.)

But it wasn’t always that way. In the early days of computing, binary wasn’t a given. Quite a few computers from the 50s and 60s used decimal arithmetic. That was harder on the designers, and they often cheated by using some kind of binary-coded decimal scheme internally. (Even today’s x86 processors, such as the one you most likely have in your PC, still have instructions for this kind of number, but they’re disabled most of the time.)

Decimal’s fine. It’s what we use in the real world, so putting it in the virtual world isn’t too big a stretch. What I learned from Knuth’s book, then expanded upon in my online research much later, is that some people went for something even stranger. The Soviets, ever ready to be different from the US, had a weird little machine called Setun. It didn’t use binary numbers. It didn’t use decimal. No, its designers chose something called balanced ternary arithmetic: base-3, but instead of using 0, 1, and 2 as digits (like you’d expect), you use 0, 1, and -1. It’s crazy.

And, in my opinion, beautiful.

I’m a big fan of symmetry. To me, it is the largest component of what makes something aesthetically pleasing. Balanced ternary is a symmetric number system, and thus I find it more intrinsically beautiful than computer binary, where negative numbers have to be represented using either a sign bit (which gives you the possibility of a negative zero) or two’s complement arithmetic (where the maximum negative value doesn’t have a positive counterpart).

Eye of the beholder

I first read about Setun in the Knuth book, as he devotes a small section to balanced ternary for the same aesthetic reasons. From there, I learned the rudiments of the number system, how arithmetic works when some digits are negative by their very nature. And I thought little of it for a decade after that.

In 2009, I was bored (are you sensing a theme yet?), and I got one of my borderline-insane ideas. What if we made a balanced ternary computer today? What would it look like? Setun was a stack-based machine; I won’t go into the details here, but suffice to say, I find stack machines ugly and unwieldy. I much prefer load-store architectures similar to those I’ve programmed in the past: AVR, 6502, etc.

So I designed one. Recall that I have no formal training in CPU design or even electronics. I was just a man with a dream, and I got surprisingly far, considering what little I had to work with. I even went to the most fundamental level, designing logic circuits that could detect and operate on electrical signals that came in three levels, including positive and negative voltage.

(You’d be surprised how well it works. Two transistors of the right type can create a balanced ternary signal. A flip-flop—basically a memory cell—takes fewer than ten. A half adder? Not much bigger. With today’s miniaturization, we could do it, and it wouldn’t be too inefficient.)

In the end, however, I’m a programmer, so my main interest lay in the software to emulate this hypothetical architecture. My first attempt, a decade ago, was…not good. Okay, it wasn’t bad, but it could use a lot of work. The code was not organized well. It relied too much on what are now considered suboptimal structures, and it just didn’t do everything I wanted. Still, I called it a partial success, because I proved to myself that it was possible to make a modern-style processor using non-binary numbers, and that I could do it.

Fast forward

Skip ahead another decade, and I read a forum post mentioning Setun, even linking to an article written about a nearly forgotten experiment from behind the Iron Curtain. That hit me at the right time to rekindle the fire. It’s nothing more than coincidence, really. Perfect timing to snipe my mind.

Trireme was born that night. I chose the name because I wanted something that evoked the number 3 (to represent the ternary aspect), and I didn’t think Trident worked. Plus, I’m a big Civilization fanboy; the trireme is an iconic unit for the series, so why not honor it in this way?

With ten more years of experience, I was smarter about both aspects of the project. I understood more about computer architecture, what worked and what didn’t. As well, I’m a better programmer today than I was then, with much more breadth, and a better grasp on how to write code other people could stand to read.

I wrote the code in Modern C++, because I wanted something fast, but also because I really like the language. (I know, I’m weird that way.) It’s a real program, too, complete with a command-line interface, a rough outline of a plugin system, and a few bells and whistles. Is it complete? Not at all. I’d love to do more with it. Given the chance, I’d like to add more to what’s currently a microcontroller; Trireme needs simulated peripherals, an OS, and much, much more. Despite that, I’m proud to say that it’s mine.

The purpose of Trireme, in as much as it has one, is to answer one question: How much of modern computer science relies on computers using binary arithmetic? As it turns out, quite a lot. Many of our common algorithms are tuned to binary, for instance, as our most of the standards upon which our modern world is built. But I think that’s where something like Trireme can come in handy as a pedagogical tool. It’s always good to think outside the box. Studying such an “alien” computer might give us insight into how to improve our own.

If you’d like to check it out, I’ve put the code for Trireme up as a Github repository. It’s free and open source, and I would love to talk to people who are interested in it. Yes, it needs a lot of improvement, but that’s on the back burner as I work on a few more practical projects. Once I have the spare time, I do want to return to it, make it better.

Why? Because I love numbers. And, strange as it may seem, I have rarely had as much fun programming as when I was working on Trireme. Isn’t that enough?

Heal me, I’m broken

I’m almost ready to give up.

The world has gone completely insane, as you may have noticed. Now I wonder whether I was already there. What I don’t wonder, however, is whether I should care. Because I don’t. Not anymore.

For years I have mostly kept my political leanings off Prose Poetry Code, because I felt it just wasn’t the place. Yes, I did the “Social Liberty” thing a long time ago, but that was about it. Even those posts never actually advocated a particular ideology; they were nothing more than a thought experiment where I tried to derive the inalienable rights of the Constitution from a set of first principles.

Well, what I’ve learned lately is that nothing in the modern world is apolitical. And so PPC can’t be, either. At this point, I believe I have nothing left to lose by throwing my opinion up here. What’s going to happen? I’ll lose my job? Nope. Don’t have one, and I doubt I’ll be getting one in the near future, despite my best efforts. Put on a watchlist? Already there, most likely. My girlfriend will leave me? That presumes I would have a chance of keeping her otherwise, and that assumption is hanging on by the thinnest of threads.

In other words, I’m already a broken man. This can’t break me any more than I already am, so why bother keeping my opinions bottled up?

Panic

Let’s start with the only news story we’ve had for the past month: coronavirus. No, I’m not one of those people who think it’s a hoax, a conspiracy to cover up the “real” truth of 5G towers and chemtrails and whatever else the Alex Jones types have come up with. It’s a real virus that’s affecting real people.

That most emphatically does not mean it’s all the media has made it out to be. Slowly but surely, solid numbers are coming out, and they very often show just how overblown the danger is. Asymptomatic rates of 20-50%, if not higher. Antibody presence in 15% or more of a random sample. An actual fatality rate closer to 0.3% than the 2-7% we were initially told.

And it doesn’t take much looking (though you do have to go off the beaten path of mainstream media and celebrity Twitter feeds) to find reports from everywhere in the US—with the notable exceptions of the New York and Detroit metro areas—of half-empty hospitals, of doctors and nurses being laid off or furloughed, of a growing realization that this was not the apocalyptic disease we were told to expect. The “best” model, the IHME model from the University of Washington, overshot Tennessee’s cases by a factor of 20! Minnesota’s special snowflake model is calling for a 30,000% increase in coronavirus deaths (from approximately 70 to over 20,000) between now and the end of summer!

Supporters of the draconian measures we have endured will say that those worst-case scenarios are if we don’t lock everything down, lock everyone up. But that’s simply not true. The IHME model takes into account “social distancing” measures (and that phrase disgusts me on many levels, but I digress) as of April 1, though its cheerleaders don’t seem to notice or care.

Pandemic

The problem, as ever, is polarization. If anything, I consider that far more of a threat to our nation than any virus, because it’s a much more insidious disease. Even today, you can take a look anywhere, whether online or real life, and see America increasingly divided into two camps that seem to be inhabiting two different realities.

On the left, you hear cries to keep the lockdowns until there are no more coronavirus deaths. Which is unrealistic, even if you discount the fact that hospitals are overcounting those deaths in an attempt to make back some of the money they’re losing by postponing elective surgeries. Add in the very real possibility that a vaccine might be years away (assuming it’s even possible—we don’t have one for the common cold, and that’s sometimes caused by a coronavirus), and…what’s the plan? We become the Morlocks, never seeing the sun except when we brave it to scrounge for a meal?

Every day you extend what we can only call the imprisonment of millions of Americans only makes the situation worse. Mental health is declining sharply—my own included. Suicides are rising, and I have no doubt that they will outnumber legitimate coronavirus deaths by the end of this year; whether I’m included in that tally is, I’ll be honest, an open question. For those fortunate enough to have families, they’re seeing increased incidence of domestic violence, child abuse, and other nastiness. Those are sure to take yet more lives. And that’s not even counting the lives that may never be, thanks to this isolation.

But the right isn’t any better, because they can only look at things through one lens: economy. Yes, it’s bad, and getting worse. Small businesses are failing, and big business is no longer booming. Unemployment is off the charts. Literally, as in the charts, much like the unemployment applications, were never made to handle such a vast segment of the workforce applying for benefits at the same time. Yet those wounds can be healed in time. We recovered from the Great Depression. We recovered from the Spanish Flu. Both of those were far more damaging, whether to our economy or our populace, than this virus.

Focusing on the economy, however, minimizes the impacts the lockdowns are having in other areas. Humans are social animals, and we evolved to socialize in person. Face to face, not through a computer or phone screen. Technology is wonderful. It’s the mark of progress, the symbol of all we have achieved. But it can’t replace the real world yet. To say that Zoom or FaceTime or Duo can substitute for actually being in the same room as a loved one, for actually having the chance to hold your newborn nephew, for actually doing the things you enjoy doing, is laughable. To say it’s more important to reopen the barbershop down the street is dehumanizing. It makes us nothing more than cogs in a machine.

Pan-democratic

We are more than that. We are human. And, as Jefferson wrote, all humans are endowed with certain inalienable rights, chief among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nothing in the Constitution says those rights are invalid in a time of crisis, because the very idea that we should protect them, enshrine them, rose from a time of crisis.

If police can stop a peaceful protest because the protestors are standing too close together, then why even have a right to assemble? If it takes federal intervention to stop a state from scanning the license plates of cars sitting in a church parking lot on Easter Sunday, how is that free exercise of religion?

The greatest thing about the Bill of Rights, I have long felt, is its purpose. Jefferson, Madison, and the other Founding Fathers did not create a document that said the government granted these rights. Not at all. Instead, they made a list of the most important rights that we have just by being born, then said, “Let’s make sure these can’t be taken away.” The First Amendment starts with the words “Congress shall make no law…” because the writers knew that Congress would eventually try to make those laws. (In fact, they barely had to wait: the Alien and Sedition Acts came about during John Adams’ presidency!) All through the Bill of Rights, you can see that this is not a list of what the people can do, but what the government can’t.

Yet they are. And in a much more dangerous fashion than in the dark days after 9/11, the days of the Patriot Act, of “extraordinary rendition” and the TSA and a hundred other small cuts. Now, it’s easier to point out the amendments still intact, because they number one: the Third. And I’d wager that’s only because state governors haven’t found a way to put the National Guard in peoples’ homes to make sure they stay far enough apart.

We can change this. We can end the tyranny if we all work together, if we cast aside our petty tribalism. Forget about Team Red versus Team Blue. Think about Team Red, White, and Blue. Stand up to those seeking ever more power over your life, your livelihood, the things you hold dear, the things that make you who you are.

We have an election in November. I had intended to run for the office of state representative, but the coronavirus stopped that. I couldn’t go from door to door for petition signatures to get on the ballot. But I still have a voice and a vote. Anyone, regardless of party affiliation, who supports a continued lockdown based on faulty data, media hysteria, and wishful thinking will receive no help from me. Those who wish to deny me freedom are my enemies. It’s as simple as that.

I may be broken, but maybe I can help others put their pieces back together.

Another review

Once again, I feel compelled to review a bit of media. In particular, it’s an album. Call it a sign of the times, I guess.

I first discovered Nightwish in 2004, based on a recommendation from…Slashdot, I think. If I recall correctly (for something that long ago, I can’t say I do), it was the same “smart kids like metal” article that got me interested in the genre as a whole. But I kept seeing them at the top of a few favorites lists, so I checked out Once.

I was blown away. This was the kind of music I never knew I’d been looking for. My only real experience with symphonic metal before then was Metallica’s S&M live album, which was actually really good. Too bad the band immediately lost any goodwill by suing its fans, but I digress. Once left me hooked on not only a band, but an entire subgenre of music, and that hook has stayed in me for a generation.

Last week saw the release of Nightwish’s ninth studio album, cumbersomely titled Human. :II: Nature. (For the sake of clarity, I’ll discard the extraneous punctuation for the rest of this post.) Naturally, I’ve listened to it a few times already, and now I’d like to talk about it.

Music

This one’s actually 2 CDs, not that “CD” means much when almost everyone is going to listen to it in MP3 or Youtube video format. The first disc leads with “Music” as its opening track. We get a fairly long symphonic intro—always a nice touch, in my opinion—before what I see as a fairly traditional Nightwish track: upbeat, with lifting vocals that mix with the orchestral and metal music to create something that overpowers your ears while still sounding beautiful.

“Noise” follows, and it’s a sharp contrast. Where “Music” is almost soft, “Noise” is overtly harsh. The singing is closer to screaming, and there’s more…shredding. Which fits the lyrics, full of references to Black Mirror and allusions to the cacophony that is our modern life.

Farther down the line, “Harvest” is the 4th track, and I would call it a masterpiece. Poetic lyrics, a melodic sound, and a general feeling of goodness permeate the song. Between its content and the chorus of band members singing, I have to admit that I was, for some reason, reminded of “Baba Yetu” by Christopher Tin, the theme song of Civilization IV. “Harvest” just struck that same chord within me.

“How’s the Heart?” is another that left me feeling better. In a way, it’s kind of a sequel to the previous album’s “Elan”. (A common theme, as Human II Nature as a whole seems to be envisioned as a sequel to Endless Forms Most Beautiful.) But it stands alone just fine, and I see it as one of the most meaningful tracks on the album. My interpretation of the lyrics is simple. We’re all human. We all have needs, and ranking high among them is the need for socialization. In these times where that need, like so many others, has been forcibly suppressed, “How’s the Heart?” asks a question I can only answer in one way: it could be a lot better.

“Procession” immediately follows, and I look at it as another “sequel” to a song on Endless Forms Most Beautiful, this time “Edema Ruh”. There seems to be a common theme in these two albums of…watchers. Call them ancestors, angels, aliens, or animist spirits, but someone is watching humanity, as though we were performing for their benefit. They were here before us, they’ll be here when we’re gone. Above all, though, they’re curious. They want to see what we’ll do next. In “Procession”, they sound as though they’re getting tired of our petty squabbles and lack of inspiration. And I agree.

Disc 1 concludes with “Endlessness”, the only track with primarily male vocals. That’s one of the downsides of the album, in my opinion, but I understand. The band’s always been more female-fronted in its singing. Although I won’t say this is the best song on the disc, it holds its own, despite being fairly long. It’s a grand finale, and it does succeed at that. You feel like you’re at the end of a journey when it begins to fade.

But the journey is only halfway done.

The second disc is technically a single song, divided into eight parts collectively titled “All the Works of Nature Which Adorn the World”. It’s entirely instrumental, apart from the occasional choral vocals and a spoken word section at the beginning and the end, and…it’s a metal symphony. There’s no other word for it. “Vista” and “Aurorae” are stirring, “Moors” makes me long for…something. I’m not sure what, but it’s there. “Anthropocene” is a term I generally loathe, considering it a pejorative, but here it comes off as inspiring—if this be the age of humans, let us make it ours. (To top it off, this movement of the symphony even includes a version of the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal, the world’s oldest known musical work.)

“Ad Astra” closes the book on Human II Nature, and let me tell you this right now: nothing could have prepared me for it. Not only does the music build to a perfect crescendo, creating the sense that, while this story is done, ours hasn’t even begun, but the spoken section is moving, inspiring. It’s a passage from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, where he muses over the picture of the same name, a photograph of Earth as seen from billions of miles away.

Our whole planet doesn’t even take up a whole pixel of the image. Everything we know, everything we are, is nothing more than a dot, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” For Sagan, that’s a call to protect and cherish what we have. For me, it’s something different. Yes, we must ensure that our environment continues to support not only our lives, but also (and this is where so many environmentalists go wrong) our livelihoods and our standard of living.

To me, the pale blue dot is the beginning. It must be, because otherwise it would be our end. And that, I think, sums up my feelings on the meaning of Human II Nature. We were born of nature, yes, we are of nature, but we have outgrown it. Tsiolkovsky said it best:

Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.

“Ad astra,” the song’s title says. To the stars. At a time when tens of millions of Americans aren’t even allowed to leave their homes, we can yet dream of better times to come. We don’t have to be chained to the indignities of the present, the ghosts of our past. We can make a future that is greater.

Why? Because we’re human. We’re not the disease. We’re the cure.

No fear in a dream

I’m a dreamer. I don’t just mean in the figurative sense of being someone who daydreams, who possesses a vivid imagination. No, I have dreams when I sleep, and some of them are very intense, moving, and even profound. Some inspire me. Some change me. While I’m in my continued imprisonment due to the overwrought fears of a belligerent media, I’d like to consider a few of those that have made the most impact on my mind, my outlook, and my life.

Obviously, dreams are subjective to start, and the details aren’t exactly fixed. Here, I try to recall as much as I can; all the dreams I describe in this post are important enough to me that I remembered as much as I could.

The last battle

First is one that, to put it simply, became a book. I had this dream in 2017 (I think), and I didn’t remember much of it. What I could recall, however, stuck with me.

In the dream, I watched as a young woman picked her way through a blasted wasteland. A battlefield, littered with corpses, strewn with the wreckage of artillery. She walked along, looking into the dead eyes of men she might have known, men who could have been her friends, relatives, elders. What she was looking for, I knew immediately: a way to stop this carnage from ever happening again.

The scene she saw was the “last” battle. Not an apocalyptic showdown at the end of the world, but certainly the end of the world she knew. Or possibly the one her parents had known, a world whose death gave her life.

This dream was cinematic in the extreme, and I felt like I had watched the trailer for an epic movie or TV series. I hadn’t, though. This was all in my own head. But it wanted to come out, and so I kept it in the back of my mind for months, until I had the chance to write Shadows Before the Sun, a novel I’m still holding back in hopes of finding a “real” publisher.

The book (the first in what I’m calling the Occupation Trilogy) mostly centers on Lia Maratte, a 20-year-old woman living in a backwater village in a conquered nation. Her late father fought on the losing side a generation ago; her half-brother is of mixed blood. And her people, subjugated by their conquerors, are ripe for revolution.

All that from a single scene that couldn’t have lasted longer than a minute of real time.

The sacrifice

As anyone who has read my writing knows, my cousin passed away in 2014, at the age of 35. He died of complications from the flu, probably the main reason I feared for my life far more in December (when I had the flu) than during the current panic.

While my dreams of him after he was gone were intensely emotional, and they greatly aided me through the grieving process, the one I had the night before seems more appropriate.

Something was destroying civilization as we know it. Meteors, asteroids, or some sort of threat from outer space; I don’t remember the specifics. People were forced to shelter, to hide in bunkers—for a real reason, unlike certain lockdowns. But we found the key. My family, specifically myself, my brother, and two of my cousins…including the one who died the next day. We found a way to stop the threat.

A secret lunar base, built by who knows who, held a weapon capable of ending the calamity. Problem was, nobody knew how to make it work. So, with myself as the lead, we studied it until we could. But it wouldn’t be enough.

Or so we thought.

My cousin stepped in front of the barrel of this weapon, and I watched in horror as he was sucked inside. But then the thing activated destroying whatever it was that had threatened the world. I had to go back to Earth to help lead the recovery, another case where my dreams make me out to be more than I am, while my brother continued to study the weapon. I woke up soon after. Twelve hours later, we got that terrible call. He didn’t die sacrificing himself for the good of humanity, but to a virus we’re now being told is, compared to the one of today, mostly harmless .

Into the unknown

I’ve made no secret that I consider myself an agnostic humanist. Thus, my opinion on the afterlife is that I don’t have an opinion. I’d like to believe that there’s something waiting after the end, especially in times like these, where the end feels so much nearer. But I can’t prove it, and my rational mind wants proof before committing to anything.

Rationality doesn’t exactly exist in dreams. And you know that old saying? “If you die in a dream, you die in real life.” Uh-uh. I’m living proof. (Unless I’m already dead. That might explain why I sometimes feel like I’m trapped in an unending cycle of pain and punishment.)

The first time I died in a dream was…years ago. I can’t be more specific than that. I think it was after 2006. And it was not only a profound experience, but an utterly frightening one.

I don’t remember the exact circumstances of my dream death. They weren’t important in this one, because the focus was on what happened next. I had what can best be described as an out-of-body experience, watching my physical form recede as I rose. Up I went, into the sky, beyond the atmosphere, through space. I looked out as I ascended, and I saw two things: the moon and a space station.

With the certainty of a dream, I knew what would happen. If I could get to that station, the scientists there could put my mind (or spirit or soul or whatever) into a new body, and I’d live again. If I went to the moon instead…well, I didn’t know what waited for me there, just that it was whatever fate awaited anyone who died.

I pushed. I pushed and pushed with my mind, trying with every ounce of mental might to change my trajectory, to aim for the station. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t move an inch from the path I was on. It’s rare that I wake in a cold sweat, but this was one of those times.

Home is where the heart is

I wrote this one down with a date: December 17, 2019. Three months ago, give or take, and much of the memory remains fresh.

Again, I died. This time, I seem to have taken much of the world with me. Awfully selfish of me, I know, but it wasn’t like I was in control. (I’ve never, to my knowledge, had a lucid dream. The best I can do is noticing when I’m dreaming and jumping out.)

The last scenes played out like a movie, much as in “The Last Battle” above. This time, however, it was a better production. I had an orchestral score that waxed and waned following the mood. There was a narrator: me. And the whole thing moved me so much that even recalling it for this post almost brings me to tears.

A woman—possibly Lia, but probably not—walks along a beach that’s slowly drowning under a rising tide. Every few steps, she finds a note from me, like a journal I’ve left one paragraph at a time. She reads them silently, and I read them aloud. I say goodbye to my family. I apologize to all I’ve hurt. In the last, most bizarre, note, I recount receiving a letter from Donald Trump. He told me he was resigning as President, because “it’s all over now anyway.”

After that, the woman walks a little more, now skipping from sandbar to sandbar, because that’s all that left. The music rises to a crescendo of mournful strings, the waves lap at the last remnants of the shore, and I speak this heartbreaking narration:

I lived my life a week at a time, each passing in a blink. Everything around me faded away. My family, my friends, the woman I forgot how to love. My home. All my memories taken like land by rising waters…

I am home. Home is where the heart is.

The last two sentences echo, slowly fading as the scene does. Then comes a fast montage, as if my life flashed before my eyes, but in reverse. And I find myself in some kind of bar or club, jerking awake at a table. A couple of seconds later, I do the same thing in real life, but in my bed instead.

Together forever

I’ve made no secret that I’m in love with a woman. And she’s probably reading this. What never fails to surprise me is that the feeling is mutual, that she loves me in return. When I’m down, I don’t believe I’m worthy of it, or her. When I’m up, I curse the circumstances that keep us physically separated.

I’ve only rarely had dreams of her. I can’t say why; you would think, given how much of a positive influence she has had on my life, she would be more prominent in my subconscious. But apparently not. Still, there are quite a few oblique references I can recall. “The woman I forgot how to love” is one: that dream came at a time when I thought we’d broken up. And I treasure the few cases where we meet in the realm of slumber, none more so than a case from last week.

We got together, to put it simply. We met, hit it off, and realized that we were made for each other. (I’ve felt that way for months already, so that’s no big shock.) Then, the passage of time accelerates. We’re married, we have children, we live together—all the goals I feel coronavirus is taking away from me even as we speak. At some point in the distant future, she dies, and I spend a few years mourning. Ending my time in this world alone, the same as how I began. And then I die.

I don’t subscribe to the fanciful notion of heaven so popular in literature. The whole “we live on clouds and play harps all day” thing just doesn’t resonate with me. And that’s not what I got here. Instead, I was told my soul would be going to “the end of the universe.” A very nebulous term, to be sure, but that’s what happened. My soul appeared to my mind’s eye as a ball of light, glowing, pulsating. When I arrived at this place beyond places, I saw others just like that. Thousands of them. Some I knew, most I’d never met before.

And then I found her.

I intuitively knew it was my love, despite our lack of physical form. I went to her, and the lights that represented us merged. At that moment, I felt a surge of emotion, of pure love, unlike anything I’ve ever known. We had become one, in a way impossible on this mortal coil, and we would stay that way forever. It was beautiful, it was glorious, and it was…comforting. I described it to her as a spiritual experience, and I simply can’t think of a better term.

It didn’t give me faith in the divine. It didn’t restore my faith in humanity, which has taken a beating in the past month. But this dream did let me believe that, if I don’t give up, we can make it. As I write this, it’s one of the only things keeping me going. I want to make this dream come true more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life.

I just wish the world would give me the chance.