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The Amazing Friends I Made at Launch Pad

I was pretty excited when I got into the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop this year. As I have written, it was an incredible experience. I collapsed an entire Astronomy 101 course into 6 days, and it was done in a framework and context for science fiction writers. The work that Mike Brotherton, Christian Ready and Andria Schwortz put into the lectures and materials was Herculean in and of itself. Their teaching and guidance was invaluable.

But there was another side to Launch Pad, the more personal side. Quite a few of the attendees of Launch Pad this year were previous attendees of Clarion. For me, however, Launch Pad was the first time I was thrust into a program with other writers in which you did everything together. You took classes together, ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, you slept in the dorms. You went to the bar, or the movies. It was compressed and that very compression led to friendships that formed quickly. So let me take a moment to talk about the new friends I made at Launch Pad, and just how amazing they are. I’ve probably made some mistakes and misremembered things, but these are my new friends. Let me introduce you. They are listed below alphabetically by first name.

Andy Romine

Andy Romine
Photo by Andy Romine

Andy (@inkgorilla on Twitter) works in visual effects when he is not writing. He can speak at length on the subject, and in an engaging manner. (He worked on Babylon 5!) Indeed, on our drive up the mountain to WIRO, Andy distracted us from the terror of the winding, curving road and the sheer drops to one side, by telling us stories from the visual effects world.

He also writes great fiction. I read his story, “The Parting Glass” (Lightspeed, December 2011) and it was excellent, reminiscent of the stuff I used to read in Science Fiction Age in the mid-1990s. It was great getting to hang out with Andy. He is one of those people who is naturally friendly and after 10 minutes, you feel like you’ve known him for 10 years. It’s just too bad he lives on the opposite coast.

Anna Leahy and Douglas Dechow

Photo taken by Christian Ready
Photo taken by Christian Ready

Douglas Dechow (@dougdechow on Twitter) and Anna Leahy were one of two couples attending Launch Pad this year. They, along with Jeri Smith-Ready were among the only other baseball fans in the batch. They are science writers, and Anna is also a poet and editor. They are also just about the coolest people you’ll meet. We hung out in O’Dwyer’s one evening, talking about beer, and baseball, and Markov chains. Some LISP might have been discussed as well. They seem to have interviewed just about every single important person in the U.S. space program and they have some great stories to tell. Some of these, they tell at their joint blog, Lofty Ambitions, which you should be certain to check out and add to your feed.

Brenda Clough

LP Final Breakfast

I somehow missed getting my picture taken with Brenda, but she is right smack in the middle of his panorama shot I took on our last breakfast together at Launch Pad. I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone with such an effervescent personality as Brenda. She was constantly bubbling with ideas and is a fascinating person to listen to. She also knits and led a group of Launch Pad attendees to a knitting store in downtown Laramie at one point during the week.

Brenda is a novelist and has had novels published by TOR, DAW, and other outlets. She seems to be written about ten novels at once, which impressed me beyond measure, as I am incapable of writing more than one short story at a time. Brenda would hang out with us in the lounge some evenings to chat and was always great fun to be around.

Brenda was one of four people to take a fall during our hike. I think it was my fault. She had turned around to talk to me when she tripped backward of the rock and did a kind of judo roll, getting up dusty, but unharmed.

Caren Gussoff

Caren Gussoff

Caren (@spitkitten on Twitter) is one of those people who is just fun to hang out with. She can liven up every crowd, and tells fantastic (and sometimes, hilarious) stories. In lectures, she was often the one asking smart questions, that always seemed to me be to tied back to whatever it was she was writing in some meaningful way. She was another of the crowd who would sometimes hang out in the lounge late into the night, talking shop or telling war stories. It was great!

Chaz Brenchley

Chaz Brenchley

Chaz (@chazbrenchley on Twitter) might very well be the most experience writer in our group at Launch Pad. I’m not exactly sure how many novels he’s written, but the number exceeds A Lot. He has also written something like 500 short stories. Or, in Launch Pad-speak, 5 x 102. Of course, Chaz has probably been writing longer than anyone else in our group. His first novel was published in 1977, at which time, I gleefully pointed out to him, I was 5 years old.

Chaz was one of the morning cohort, which usually included myself and Doug Farren (and occasionally Brenda) who would be up early and at the student union by 7 am, writing. He was also my frequent companion at O’Dwyer’s. I think the photo I took above is possibly one of the only Launch Pad photos of Chaz where he hasn’t managed to hide in the background.

Chaz was one of four people who took a spill while we went hiking. They say the bigger they are, the harder they fall, and I think Chaz proved the sentiment with great fanfare. Don’t believe me. Let Chaz describe it himself.

Continue reading The Amazing Friends I Made at Launch Pad

Launch Pad Days 6 and 7

A Picturesque Saturday Morning

Saturday mornings are quiet on the University of Wyoming, Laramie campus. I actually slept in a bit, after staying up late chatting with folks in the lounge. I had a text from Chaz Brenchley telling me that the student union was closed and that he would be heading over to the Turtle Rock cafe to get his writing done. I lazed around a bit longer and finally headed over in the direction of the Turtle Rock cafe at around 7:30 am.

Laramie Morning

The streets were empty. Even the sidewalks were empty. On my walk to the cafe, I saw exactly 1 person, an early-morning jogger. But it was gorgeous out. Not too warm, and that blue sky that goes on forever in this part of the country. The picture above gives only a partial glimpse of what it was like.

Chaz and Doug had already found a table and were writing away. There wasn’t much room at their table, so I chose a different one to do my work, ordered a bagel and set about my blogging and other writing for the day. Later, more people showed up and we ended up joining tables and chatting before heading off to lectures.

Cosmology

Saturday’s lectures were among the most dense and most interesting lectures of the week. We started where we left off on Friday, talking about the galactic center and then gradually moving further and further out, to other galaxies, taking up Hubble’s Law, galactic clusters, gravitational lensing, interacting galaxies, active galaxies and Seyfert galaxies. And we didn’t stop there. We moved onto other related topics like cosmic jets and radio lobes, and quasars and their spectra. And all of this was crammed into a marathon 2-hour session, which we did without a break. My brain was humming when we finally set off to the cafeteria for lunch.

After lunch, we jumped into another marathon session on cosmology, this one covering Hubble’s Law in a little more detail. We talked about the expanding universe (and what that means), the age of the universe, and how we are able to look back at the early universe. We discussed the cosmological principle, the shape and geometry of the universe, and general relativity. From there, we moved into discussions of the deceleration of the universe, model universes, dark matter, baryonic dark matter, the cosmological constant, and the cosmic microwave background.

(Deep breath!)

We wrapped up the final day of lectures with a fascinating discussion of cosmological themes in science fiction. Finally, we took our post-test to see how much we improved from when we first arrived at Launch Pad.

Sweet Melissa’s

A group of people that included Christian and Jeri, Andy, Jenn, Douglas and Anna, Brenda and myself went back to downtown Laramie for dinner on Saturday evening. We went to Sweet Melissa’s, where the other gang went the previous night. We had a leisurely dinner there, and I tried their margarita, which was good, surprisingly strong, and quite inexpensive. A few people went to the local bookstore and picked up various things. Then it was time to party.

Continue reading Launch Pad Days 6 and 7

Launchpad Day 3: At the Top of the World

The first two days of Launchpad have been long days and nights. I’ve been doing my best to take advantage of the time, so despite the fact that I was pretty tired, I was still up at about 5:20 am. I spend the first hour of the day writing up my Launchpad Day 2 blog post. Then I showered, and started in on the fiction writing. At 7 am, I once again headed over to the student commons with Chaz Brenchley and Doug Farren, and spent the next hour or so writing. I managed about 600 words of fiction, making it my 140th consecutive day of writing. Here are two-thirds of the writers at work (the other third is busy taking pictures):

Writers at work

I headed back to the dorm at 8:15 to meet the gang for breakfast. We once again walked over to the Turtle Rock cafe. The weather was just about perfect and we once again sat outside, eating our breakfasts and talking. It was wonderful. And not just the weather. There is a camaraderie that is growing within the group. Writing is a lonely business and is a wonderful just to be able to talk to other writers about writing, because you are talking to people who know. They’ve been through the same things you have and have complete empathy. And you can learn a lot from them, too.

Lectures started at 10 today, and as it turned out, today was a kind of brass tacks day for science fiction writers. We began the day learning about exoplanets, which meant starting the day with binary stars. Binary stars rotate around a common center of gravity and can occlude one another when seen from earth. This occlusion is one way in which exoplanets are discovered (it’s called the “transit method”). Getting exoplanets right is a very practical matter for science fiction writers because we often write stories set on worlds that are not within the solar system. There was a time when we had no idea if such planets even existed. We now know different (there are over 3,000!) and it’s useful to have real information about them.

After a short break, we went downstairs for a lab on planet hunting. We learned to read the data from the light output of stars and so we went to this lab room which had computers for all of us, and set about using a website called planethunters.org, a citizen science project, to attempt to classify stars and identify possible occlusions. This was a lot of fun, to say nothing of practical. And, as it so happened, one of our group, Doug Dechow, discovered a star that had a very regular occlusion–and it further turned out that he was the first to identify them. So who knows, maybe Launchpad 2013 will have discovered another exoplanet.

When that lab was over–no one really wanted for it to be over because it was too much fun–it was lunchtime and we headed to the cafeteria.

LP Lunch

After the lecture we had a break and then headed over to another building for a demonstration of astonomical image processing by astronomer Chip Kobulnicky. The room we were in had computers for each of us to use. The computers had software for image processing, as well as some images from both Hubble and the University of Wyoming. The photos were taken in several different filters and the software is used to combine and manipulate the results.

Chip is an animated guy and you can tell from his enthusiasm just how much he loves astronomy. Chip explained how the CCD cameras that take pictures of stars work. The cameras in our phones are the same type of camera and work in the same way. The way the camera functions affect the quality of the images, and Chip explained the “noise” that can creep into the photos. We looked at raw images from the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as images taken here at the university. Chip then showed us how to use the software to combine images taken in different filters, and how to adjust them in different ways to get the maximum amount of information out of them. After playing around with the images, here is the results I got:

Image processing

The image processing class gave us a real sense of how astronomy is done. We also got to see raw images, with all of their flaws included. It is amazing how much cleanup work takes place on some of these images to produce the posters of amazing Hubble views of the universe.

Continue reading Launchpad Day 3: At the Top of the World

Launchpad Day 2: Sex In Space and Other Interesting Scientific Tidbits

Even though we seem to start late each morning (on Day 2, we did not get started until 10 am!) we pack in full days at Launchpad. Yesterday was a prime example. We got started with lectures at 10 am and we didn’t really finish until after 10 pm. And although lectures started late, my day still began early…

I was up at 5 am and after a shower1 I wrote up the Day 1 blog post, posted this week’s Going Paperless post, and did some fiction writing. All told, I wrote something like 3,700 words in the morning. As we did on Monday, Chez Brenchley, Doug Farren and I hiked over to the student union at 7 am to write. We sat at the same table and all three of us typed away. I stayed until 8:15, when I headed back to the dorm to meet up with a group that was going to breakfast at the Turtle Rock cafe.

The cafe was on the other side of campus and took a leisurely morning walk in that direction. Once there, we found seats out on the patio. The weather was gorgeous and we all sat around eating our breakfasts and posting recursive pictures of ourselves posting pictures to Instagram:

Turtle Rock

Memories of Pacific Rim still lingered fresh on our minds so there was more discussion of the awfulness of that movie2, but mostly we sat, and ate, and chatted, and soaked up the sun. We weren’t too concerned about being late to our first lecture at 10 am because our instructor, Christian Ready, was right there at breakfast with us.

Eventually, we did meander back toward our lecture hall for our first lecture of the day, this one on the electomagnetic spectrum, presented by Andria Schwortz. The lecture covered different types of radiation (light, nuclear radiation, etc.) and involved a handful of Greek letters that seemed unusually difficult to make on my Chromebook. We discussed wave-particle duality, frequency, wavelength, energy, visible light and color, atmospheric windows, false color images (which aren’t really false). It was a crash-course, but it was very interesting and we’d have some practical applications later in the day that would make it easier to understand.

We ate lunch in the cafeteria, all of us sitting at a long table together and chatting about various experiences at conventions and people we’d met. It was a good lunch, and afterwards, we headed to the physical sciences building for our first activity. Here, we learned how to identify a gas from its spectrum. We did it with a continuous spectrum and emission spectra (it was a little more complicated to do absorption spectra). This was a lot of fun and we all really got into it. For those wondering what these spectra look like, here is a continuous spectrum for incandescent light (you can see the spectrum to either side of the light):

Spectra

I had a blast doing this activity and I think everyone else did as well.

I should mention at this point one usual thing that took place during the day. It seems that at some point, Andy Romine acquired a towel. For a period of several hours, wherever we went on campus, this towel went with him. I know this sounds odd, and very, well, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-esque. And perhaps you don’t believe me. So here is the proof, Andy with his towel:

Andy Romine

After the lab activity we had a short break where several of us went to the Classroom Building to look for something with caffeine to drink, but the cafe there was closed. Eventually, I found a soda machine.

Continue reading Launchpad Day 2: Sex In Space and Other Interesting Scientific Tidbits

  1. Dorm showers, man. It’s a small step up from showering at the gym.
  2. Relative awfulness, I suppose.

Launchpad Day 1: Space is Big… And So Are Robots

The first official day of Launchpad was a lot of fun. Several early-birds, including myself, Chaz Brenchley and Doug Farren headed over to the university commons, where the wireless connectivity was better, and where, rumor had it, the food and coffee places opened at 7am. The rumor was not quite true. The commons were, indeed, open, but they didn’t start serving until 7:30. We spent most of our time there writing. It is amazing how quiet three professional writers can be when sitting together at the same table, concentrating on their writing.

Our first instruction began at 9:30 am, which happens to be the earliest we’ll be starting all week. This seemed late to me, but astronomers are night owls and early morning is a foreign concept to them, I suppose. Mike Brotherton started with introductions. He talked about how and why Launchpad was conceived, and what goals he had for the program. He introduced our other instructors, including Christian Ready and Andria Schwortz. We learned that Christian worried long years over his career choice: either astronomer or UFOlogist. Ultimately he chose the former. He explained this was because, well, he was worried that he and the aliens might not get along as well as he’d like. Astronomy was therefore safer for the aliens.

Andria introduced herself. She is getting a Ph.D. in astronomer and education and had interesting and amusing things to say about Clan of the Cave Bear and The Dragonriders of Pern.

When Andria was done, the attendees all gave brief introductions. We learned, for instance that Liz Argall is originally from Austrilia, which gave her an unfair advantage when talking about seasons later in the day.

Finally, we took a pre-test, which consisted of 24 questions. Here is one sample:

17. When the sun reaches the end of its life, what will happen to it?

a. It will turn into a black hole
b. It will explode destroying Earth
c. It will lose its outer layers, leaving its core behind
d. It will not die due to its mass
e. It will retire to Florida and consume blue-planet specials each night for dinner1.

The idea here is to provide some analysis to see how well Launchpad improves attendees knowledge of astronomy. We will take this same test again when we finish up Launchpad. I’m a little nervous about this. I don’t want to be the first Launchpad attendee ever to score better on the pre-test than the post-test.

Mike Brotherton gave our first proper lecture which was on the scale of the cosmos. The lecture can be summed up as follows (Mike had this on an introductory slide):

Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it s. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemsist, but that’s just peanuts to space.” — Douglas Adams, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, 1979

The theme for the day became space is big. This later morphed into robots are big, but we haven’t quite gotten there yet.

Actually, this was a good lecture to set the framework for everything else to come. It gave us a good notion of just how big space is (it’s really big). Mike demonstrated this by going through 12 steps, starting with a 16 x 16m square, and jumped out by a factor of 100 every step. By the time we got to step 3, for instance, we could see the whole damn planet. By step 6 we at about 100 AUs, or the entire solar system. At step 9 we were at 1,700 light years, or the extended solar neighborhood. Finally, at step 12, we were at the entire universe. Christian emphaiszed the point in a lecture later in the day, when he demonstrated that if the sun was a yellow ball on the roof of the Classroom Building (remember the Classroom Building?) the Oort cloud at the edge of the solar system would be as far away as the border of Mexico. And the nearest star would be in Hawaii.

At this point we took a break for lunch, because, as you might imagine, the scale of the universe makes one ravenous. We didn’t just eat lunch, we ate big lunches. Here are some of the Launchpad classmate during a break:

Launchpad

After lunch we continued with a lecture by Andria on the seasons and phases of the moon. This was interesting because it led to the first discussions of how what we were learning might be applied to science fiction. Discussion of the seasons on Earth (caused by the axial tilt and the angle at which light from the sun hits the Earth) led to discussions of astronomical scenarios that might account for the weather conditions in Westeros. This led into further discussions of things like circumbinary star system and all kinds of fascinating configurations.

Continue reading Launchpad Day 1: Space is Big… And So Are Robots

  1. Okay, this wasn’t really on the quiz

Launchpad Day 0: Welcome to Wyoming

I arrived in Laramie, Wyoming yesterday, along with all of my other fellow Launchpad attendees, in preparation for the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop, which actually starts today. Yesterday was more of a travel and getting acquainted day. And it was a lot of fun.

My flight was not too early, so my Sunday morning started out pretty much as usual. Kelly and the kids took me to the airport, and the Little Man in particular had a bit of a tough time saying goodbye. He knew I was going on a trip, but I don’t think it sunk in until I got out of the car at the airport. Actually, this is the longest time I’ve been away from both kids since they were born, and it was a little heart-wrenching, although I tried not to show it. I didn’t want to upset the Little Man any more than he was already upset.

My flight took me to Denver. It was an uneventful flight, and blessedly short, as I’ve grown tired of those long flights across the country that seem to drag on endlessly. I upgraded my flight, so I at least had leg room and a decent meal on the plane:

Airplane breakfast

I arrived at Denver International a little early. Attendees were being driven up to Laramie from the airport and so we were all meeting in front of the Burger King on the food court. It was here that I first met several of my fellow attendees, including Chaz Brenchley, Jenn Brissett, Claudine Griggs, Andrew Romine, Jeri Smith-Ready, Christian Ready (not an attendee but an instructor), and Jennifer Campbell-Hicks.

I ended up riding up to Laramie with Christian and Jeri Smith-Ready, Chaz Brenchley, and Andy Romine. The drive took about two hours and we talked shop, talked movies, talked Evernote, and even managed to catch some scenery as we drove1.

Wyoming

When we arrived at the University of Wyoming, Laramie campus, we met the rest of the attendees. These included Brenda Clough, Jay O’Connell, Liz Argall, Caren Gussoff, Doug Farren, Douglas Dechow, and Anna Leahy. Mike Brotherton, the Man Behind Launchpad was also there to greet us. Last, but not least, we also met Andria Schwortz, who will be one of our instructors, and who graciously served as our tour guide around the campus.

All of the writers attending Launchpad are being housed in the dorms, so we checked into the dorm and were assigned our rooms, and we were given our meal cards, for we are eating our lunches and dinners in the dorm cafeteria. It has been more than 21 years since I last slept in a dorm. Here is what my room looked like when I first found it:

My dorm room

We ate dinner together in the dorm cafeteria and that was an exercise in nostalgia. I worked in the dorm cafeteria at my school all four years I was there. The food was good but the company and conversation was even better. There was a lot of shop talk, and I think we scared Andria with our inside baseball of the science fiction world.

As if to repay us, Andria took us on a tour of the campus after dinner. We saw where we’d be having our lectures, and where we’d be doing some our activities. And we got to see lots of the campus, which is really quite beautiful.

Continue reading Launchpad Day 0: Welcome to Wyoming

  1. We also got to meet an incredibly friendly Wyoming State Trooper, but that is a story for another time.