"I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess." -Martin Luther

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Weakly Typed Languages, or, I Don't Get the Point

Dear Readers,

It got all dark outside the office and started raining about half an hour ago, so I'm sticking around until it lets up a bit before making the 0.25-0.5 mile walk home. While I'm sticking, I might as well write up what I've learned today.

I'm working with IDL, a weak-typed language, which means you don't have to specify a type, such as int, long, double, or string, when you create your variables (real computer people are probably rolling over in their cubicles at this definition; it is more complicated than I'm making it out to be (don't get the idea from this mention of rolling over in cubicles that I in any way believe computer people have no lives; it's all in good fun)).
Weak-typed languages have all sorts of benefits and problems compared to strongly-typed languages.
Today I discovered one of the problems.
I was fitting some data by changing various parameters and running a batch of scripts that took a little under two-minutes to complete, then looking at my results and trying again. About three hours in I ran into a strange trend. A certain parameter did affect my results; I had observed it do so before, and was observing it do so now; however, no matter how I varied the parameter, I got only one of two outcomes, whereas I expected a whole continuum of variation as I varied the parameter. Above a certain parameter value, I got one answer, below it, another, and, the more tests I ran, the smaller the possible value of that, well, certain value became, until at last I determined there was indeed an integer parameter value above which I got one result, below which I got a strikingly different one. This was most odd, so I typed
help
at my idl command line, and idl did its best, which was to give me a list of all the variables of which it was aware, their contents, and their current type. The parameter I was varying was a ratio of two numbers, yet it, amongst a host of other ratios, was registered as an int. That was the problem, because I was working with a ratio very close to one. Any ratio with a value between one and two was assigned the integer value one. Any ratio between two and three was truncated to two. Well, that couldn't be my fault. After all, it's a weakly-typed language -- it's responsible for such matters!
And yet, it was my fault. As soon as I asked myself why the compiler would assign this particular ratio as an int, and looked at the various parameters in the parameter file, I realized my mistake.
All the other numbers in ratio form had these annoying little decimals at the end of them. I, of course, had deleted the decimal in this ratio after changing the value. No point in leaving it in, you know? But of course that was the whole point. In order to let the computer know it's dealing with a floating-point number rather than an int, IDL allows the user to simply add a hanging decimal. Well, isn't that convenient! And now I know.

Before I conclude this post, I ought to answer a question I am sure many of you are asking yourselves. The question is as follows: I thought he was an intern, yet he knows when it gets dark outside and starts raining. Do interns have windowed offices? The answer to this question is that yes, I do work in a windowed office. There are AC pipes hanging from the ceiling. Beneath, upon, above, and about my desk are seven computer monitors (besides my own -- five CRT, three flat panel) and ten computer chassis (although a few look like they've been cannibalized). There is also a window running the width of the room. It's at the top of the wall, though, leading to the somewhat jaded comment I was privy to a few weeks ago: "there's piping in the ceiling and the window's are raised; it's either prison or a grad-student's office." That statement, of course, now proves to be false, as this office is my very own, and I am neither graduate student nor prisoner.

Monday, June 08, 2009

There's So Many People! or Reflections on Summer at a Bigger College

During the school year, I attend Covenant College, which is home to about 1000 undergraduate students and very few graduate students. This summer I am living at Clemson university, home to around 14000 undergrads and 3000 graduate students and post-docs. Clemson has more faculty than Covenant has students.

Knowledge of this disparity in size led me to two notable expectations.

First, I believed that the larger size of Clemson's campus meant I would take longer to get everywhere. This is false. Certainly, there's no way I can sprint all the way to the physics department and back if I want to drop off a paper. It's close to a mile round trip. However, the food is, in truth, closer than it was at Covenant, due to the fact that even on most days I cook in my apartment, and on the others, Clemson has spread the edible joy around by building several cafeterias. And, most importantly, I don't know most of the students at Clemson. I never realized until I strolled across campus one lazy sunny afternoon, that it is rare for me to pass five students at Covenant without at least smiling and saying hello to one or two, and, most likely, striking up a conversation. It can take me hours to make the few hundred meter walk to the library. My comparative isolation is not sad. I have friends at Clemson, and I live in a world where most of my friends are no more than a phone call away. It is, however, causing me to smile fondly as I think of all my kind and faithful friends and acquaintances on the mountain.

An irony connected to the first expectation is that one would think summer-school at a major university would involve ghost-town reminiscent environments. To the contrary, there is quite a bit of life at Clemson, although it is a little more spread out than I am used to. Covenant is, after all perched on a mountaintop. In fact, I am already a little bit concerned about the sheer number of people around. What's going to happen in the Fall! Will everyone be lost in a sea of antlike undergraduates rushing hither and thither? Will the spacious-seeming anterooms, courtyards, and monuments be clogged with the academically-minded future of the nation?

I comfort myself by supposing the administration at Clemson has dealt with this problem in the past. Anyway, they have at least an entire building all to themselves, so I can't imagine them not being able to come up with some sort of viable plan.

In the meantime, I will walk long distances per conversation and find the ratio of campus size to distance to food to be smaller than anticipated.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Inertial Electrostatic Confinement Fusion

This is a link to a google video of a talk by Dr. Robert Bussard in 2006. His group has achieved (momentary) "safe" nuclear fusion with a series of underfunded, unoptimized, incredibly simple reactors. The core of the simplest one was little more than a copper wire frame. They used what he calls "archaic" physics -- ideas from almost a century ago that are still accepted but no longer considered cutting-edge and thus unlikely fields for specialization and funding.
If it is ever funded to completion and put into production IECF has some exiting implications.
For those even remotely interested in science, energy, and particularly physics.
If you don't have much time, there's cool theory at the beginning, then some very interesting experimental results from minutes 39-48, followed by some less interesting parts and then some strongly stated implications from min 52-106.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Nathanael Booth and the Ring of Power, Part VII

Dear Readers, At last I do no need to apologize for an extended period of blogging silence. Instead, I point you to the links for any necessary review, and happily introduce the closing chapter of what has been a most enjoyable story to write.

PartVI
Part V
Part IV
Part III
Part II
Part I


“Don't!” shouted the sweet-smelling blacksuit, and he held up his hands, fingers splayed wide to display at least a dozen rings. The Ringmaker, his own hands halfway out from behind his back, froze, eyes widening.
“I don't know what these would do and I don't care,” growled the blacksuit, “but each of us can rub ten or twenty at a time, and one of those is bound to do something unpleasant. So you will stand there and do nothing while we take each and every ring from your fingers.”
Nathanael eyed Graybeard, then looked down at his own pocket. Graybeard tilted his head in acknowledgment and cleared his throat.
“You know,” he began, and then cowered back as the blacksuits turned their wands and rings on him, “I said, you know,” he began more quietly, “I always thought you were overdressed – sunglasses and coats inside -- but this, well gaudy perfume is just embarrassing!”
The smelly blacksuit's cheek twitched.
“I don't know, Graybeard,” smiled Georgie in her sweetest voice, gesturing hyperbolically, “It's such a delicate fragrance, so elegant, so ostentatious! Where did you get it?”
One of the blacksuits coughed. The aromatic leader turned to eye his compatriot with a gaze even darker than his glasses, then turned back to Georgie. “You will regret that,” he rumbled, and stepped towards her.
Georgie stepped to meet him, jaw clamped angrily.
Nathanael's hand had been sliding ever-so-gently towards his pocket. Now it dove in and found the ring. Graybeard, seeing the blacksuits completely distracted by Georgie, grabbed his and rubbed it for good measure.
At first Graybeard thought the sound overhead was popcorn, but after a moment he realized it was the rapidly swelling chords of jazz music. A table and two chairs, containing a large pizza and a radio playing jazz, Miss Doris, and the Cabbie, respectively, crashed to the ground around them. Two blacksuits were pinned by the table. The smell of garlicky crust filled the warehouse as popcorn began to accumulate on the bill of the cabbie's flatcap.
Nathanael found himself nose to nose with the cabbie, who had apparently been standing up to get another piece of pizza. “Ya tries to have a date, jus'a nice simple date, and whaddaya get?” the cabbie asked Nathanael.
Nathanael was opening his mouth to answer when the blacksuits interrupted him with an indescribably miserable howling.
“Garlic!” Georgie heard the leader choke out, grasping for his throat, and then he was gone into the darkness. The others followed, except for the one unfortunate enough to land under Miss Doris' chair. The fairy secretary leaned over upside down, brandishing a garlicy crust in one hand, and began explaining exactly how many ways she could vaporize him.
“Well done, Georgie!” Graybeard grinned in excitement as the Blacksuits staggered away. “You had them thoroughly distracted.”
“I wasn't trying to distract them,” Georgie's face flashed between grin and glower, “I was just mad.”
“Whaddis goin on here!” yelled the cabbie, once the howling had died away into the dark.
“Sorry to call you like that,” explained Nathanael, tipping his hat and slipping out from between the table the the cabbie, “but, you see, we were under considerable duress.”
“Du-ress!”
And we need to take a look at all the rings you were given for the frequent user's special. Unless, of course,” he turned to the Ringmaker, “the proper ring was one of these two,” he held up his own ring, and motioned with his other hand to Graybeard's.
“The Incomparable Ring of the Magic Taxi? And The Popcorn Shower Circle? No, definitely not. Neither of these will be of any ultimate use against the blacksuits.”
“All we need,” exclaimed Georgie, exasperated, “is a ring of garlic!”
“Well, we, er, got rid of that one,” the Ringmaker raised his hand as if to scratch his head, but thought better of it. “There were too many complaints from users, even after we started marketing it as the Ring of Ensured Seclusion from All But the Severely Olfactorily Challenged.”
During this conversation the cabbie had eaten two more slices of pizza and washed them down from a bottle of beer. Now, grumbling, he snapped his fingers, at which gesture his taxi fell from somewhere above them and bounced on the floor a few feet from where they were all gathered. By the time everyone had climbed up from the floor, where they had hurled themselves in an effort to avoid being squashed, the cabbie had restored his stogie to its familiar position between his lips, and retrieved the container of rings from the taxicab.
“Why would you do that?” asked Nathanael, as he, Graybeard, and the Ringmaker went over to investigate the rings.
“Yes, you could have killed someone!” agreed Graybeard.
“No,” Nathanael interrupted the Cabbie's “whaddya mean...” by explaining, “I meant, Mr. Ringmaker, why on Earth – or, in this case, why on this particularly ridiculous world -- would you destroy the only ring sure to repel the blacksuits? How could you be so foolish?”
The Ringmaker wilted under Nathanael's remonstrations. “It was going to be a hard fight either way and we...the Council of Wise Fairy Tale Characters (we call it 'Cwyftyc' for short)...decided that we might stand a better chance of being sent some good users to help us if we put ourselves into an extra dire state.”
“You're joking.”
“I'm afraid not. There were some protests from the grandfatherly wing about the ethics of putting everyone more at risk to try to trigger some kind of happy fate, but the arch-villain party insisted this was a partisan argument and that in times like these we had to reach across the aisle.”
“You must have access to C-SPAN,” muttered Nathanael.
“As a matter of fact we do. Now, this ring here is capable of turning any food in any world into chicken....”
While the Ringmaker examined the rings and the cabbie stood with his arms crossed, puffing his stogie and glaring at the darkness surrounding them, Georgie went to talk to Miss Doris, who now had the blacksuit waiting upon her, though there was not much for him to do, since she was already within reach of the pizza and her bottled water.
“I love what you've done with your wings,” ventured Georgie, smiling boldly as she eyed Miss Doris' delicate wings, on which were painted curly-cues and flowers in shades of turquoise and aquamarine.
“Turn down the ra-di-o!” shouted the fairy to the blacksuit, then, her grimace of command changing to a sweet smile, “Awww, thanks deary,” she replied to Georgie's compliment. “The cabbie tells me you go to school. Whaddaya wanna be?”
“...and this one,” the Ringmaker said, “is the Temperature Indicator of Good and Bad Jokes,” he shook the empty can and his head. “None of these! None of these!” he once again made as if to rub his head, getting his hat off this time before realizing what he was doing and whipping his hands behind his back. The cabbie examined his floorboards with a shrug.
Nathanael stopped tapping his chin with the head of his umbrella. “I say, cabbie....”

Benjamin Dobbs stretched and yawned. He'd wasted most of the last half hour gazing emptily at the sunset out the window. Now it was dark and his head, which had started hurting hours ago, was beginning to protest loudly. The last students had passed through after dinner. A study group had formed at one of the tables, so he had moved to one of the couches beneath the television, books spread heavy and hot across his legs. His notebook was a mess of scribbled and many-times-erased calculus.
There was a presidential press conference on the news. He frowned at the screen, trying to discern from the cryptic statements on the ticker what was the current crisis. The president himself was no help, having paused to sneeze. Benjamin couldn't help but smile as the sneezing continued and intensified. How embarrassing, Benjamin though, allergies acting up on live tv.
Benjamin cocked his head and frowned. The president's sneezing was exceptionally powerful and constant. But even as Benjamin thought so, the president stopped, gasping for breath and pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket. Benjamin relaxed and sat back.
The sneezing recommenced.
Benjamin stopped to watch. The sneezing stopped.
He shook his head dismissively and looked down, pulling his ring out of his pocket where he had been absent-mindedly playing with it. The sneezing began again.
Benjamin wondered. He held the ring still. The president stopped sneezing, shoulders now heaving, aides whispering to each other in the background.
Benjamin rubbed the ring. The president sneezed.
Benjamin ignored his buzzing cell phone and repeated the test.
The president sneezed to the beat of Mission: Impossible before Benjamin believed it. He examined his ring closely, looked up at the televised view of the conference room, then back down at the ring. The tiny symbol against the background banner was indeed the presidential seal of the United States of America.
He glanced at his phone as it began to ring a second time. Seeing who it was, he snatched it up.
“Graybeard!”
“Benjamin, look...”
“My ring makes the president sneeze!”
“Really?” Graybeard asked intensely “(it makes the president sneeze!)” Benjamin heard him call.
“Listen, Benjamin,” we think your ring is the key to solving our problems. We're not sure how yet, just rub it and don't stop.”
“How would it help? The president looks pretty worn out, anyway...”
“Just rub it! Now!”
Benjamin closed his mouth and began rubbing.

“You really think it's the one, Ringmaker?” Graybeard inquired, covering the mouthpiece of his cellphone.
“There can be no doubt,” the Ringmaker said enthusiastically.
“But it makes the president sneeze.”
“Yes, it does at that.”
“Who thought that one up?”
The Ringmaker stared at Graybeard, and a thoughtful gaze full of curiosity filled his face. “I can't quite recall...”
“Oh, it doesn't matter. I just can't believe my cell phone got through,” said Graybeard.
“Yes,” Nathanael chuckled, “I don't blame you, but you can never tell in fairy tales, I guess.”
“Hold on,” Graybeard put a hand to one ear as he listened to his phone. “Benjamin says the press conference is canceled; the president is being taken to detox. They think it's some sort of poison or terrorist plot or something...”
Far above them there was a thunderous crash. Sunlight and the roar of jet engines poured in as pieces of the roof plummeted to the ground. Several metallic craft sank through the hole towards them.
“More Blacksuits!” Graybeard growled.
“Ringmaker, anything you can do?” inquired Nathanael.
“I'll hold them off for as long as I can. You had better run. This is the climax, so I bid you farewell!” The Ringmaker tossed his light ring to Graybeard and disappeared into the darkness. Blacksuits were already zipping down ropes into the dark around them, and soon there was the sound and flash of thunderbolts from the direction the Ringmaker had gone.
There was a shrill scream from behind them. They all whipped around.
“Georgie!” yelled Graybeard and Nathanael.
“Doris!” yelled the cabbie.
They rushed towards the sounds of violence, Graybeard rubbing the light ring furiously.
Their run brought the blacksuit into view. He was face down on the floor, at the feet of Georgie and Doris, who stood laughing, arms around each other's shoulders like old friends.
“Sorry for screaming,” said Georgie.
“He tried to make a break for it!” explained Miss Doris indignantly. “We had to smack'im.”
“Let's go!” suggested Nathanael vehemently, starting for the light that was the trailer door.
“Bub,” said the cabbie, not moving, “if yous think yous can get out on yous feet, be my guest. I'll be takin t'cab.”
“But how will you get out of here?” Nathanael changed his course and once again they all piled into the cab.
“I'll take care of that!” the cabbie rumbled, opening the passenger door for Miss Doris. The three friends in the back seat raised their eyebrows as he gave her a hand in.

“The latest word is that the president's sneezing attack continues...” entoned the news anchor.
“This is one of those things,” commented a student, standing behind Benjamin to watch the television, “that you can't help but laugh at, but might not turn out to be funny. They're acting like he could be dying.”
The study group had ended when someone noticed the television reporting that the president was being taken for emergency medical treatment. Now a number of students were clustered around Benjamin who, with a rising sense of guilt, tried to hide his ring hand and furiously rubbing thumb from view.
“Graybeard!” he hissed into his phone, “this could hurt him! Why in the world am I supposed to be doing this?”
“Look!” Graybeard shouted back over the phone, “It's the Ringmaker!”

As the cab flashed past, they saw that the Ringmaker was surrounded by a half-dozen protective auras and waving his hands in desperate ring-rubbing combinations that sent fire, ice, grandfather clocks, sea turtles, and yogurt hurting into the line of advancing blacksuits. Behind the line roared their dropships, jet turbines turned Earthwards to maintain their altitude. Streaks of orange light burst from the pods on their wings, and everyone ducked their heads as the first of the rockets exploded, having been detonated by the materialization of a giant snow globe around it, presumably brought about by a wave of the Ringmaker's hand. Fragments of what had probably been models of Santa and his reindeer swirled furiously in the few moments it took the globe to plummet to the Earth.
“The door's too narrow!” shouted Graybeard, peeling his eyes away from the fight behind them.
“Just buckle yous seatbelts,” growled the cabbie, and swerved to the side as a rocket blew a crater in the ground in front of them. Miss Doris screamed.
Georgie sank down as far as she could into her seat, feeling very carsick.
Graybeard clung to the interior of the car and watched the trailer door approach.
Nathanael glanced back in time to see one of the rockets hurl the Ringmaker to the ground, and the blacksuits rush to surround him, wands flashing blue. Another rocket shot towards the cab.
The cabbie, watching in his side view mirror, swerved out of its path; then, as the rocket nosed into the ground where they had just been, he swung the wheel over so that the cab swerved into the explosion.
Expanding air and shrapnel batted the cab onto its side, and, sparks flying and metal shrieking, the vehicle shot out the narrow opening of the trailer door and fell the few feet to the warehouse floor, rotating around its front fender before crashing down on all four wheels again.
“Well,” said Georgie from where she sat squashed between Graybeard and Nathanael, “that's awkward.”
Nathanael muttered about diamonds and Roger Moore as Graybeard and Georgie clambered off of him.
Miss Doris did not clamber off of the cabbie, but clung to his shoulder, scolding him.
The cabbie grumbled defensively as he unsuccessfully tried to restart the cab. Shrapnel had eaten chunks out of its front, and smoke was pouring from the mangled hood.
“Graybeard? Graybeard?” Benjamin's concerned voice came muffled from the floorboards where the cell phone had fallen.
Two more dropships landed beside them. Black sunglasses peered into the windows.
Graybeard picked up his cell phone.
“Benjamin, tell my family I love them,” he said cheerfully, “better tell all our families.”
But the blacksuits reached to their earbuds, listeneing attentively. Then they turned away, climbing back into their dropships.
The dropships rose and hurtled away through blasted holes in the roof of the warehouse. Everything but the hissing of the radiator became very quiet.
“Why are they leaving?” asked Georgie.

“Guys? Guys? Graybeard, what's happening?” hissed Benjamin.
“We seem to be fine now,” replied Graybeard, looking inquisitively at Nathanael for answers. His friend shrugged and shook his head.
“What's going on there?”
“They've locked down the White House. They think it may be a biological attack of some kind...um...they're moving the vice president and the joint chiefs of staff...the military is on high alert...the Secret Service has all been called up to secure....to secure...” Benjamin's face lit up in understanding just as everyone else's did.
“They look just like Secret Service agents!” Georgie giggled.
“Of course!” Nathanael slapped his knee.
“No. Not 'of course'. Why would the blacksuits have anything to do with the Secret Service?” asked Graybeard. “Are they the Secret Service?”
“Well,” reasoned Nathanael, “they probably have their fingers in as many governements as they can get them. What better way to know the pulse of a nation than to infiltrate its upper level of security? And when they were all called up just now, because the president cannot stop sneezing, they had to call off their attack or be found out by the government; or rather, not found by the government, which would mean the same thing -- the end of their infiltration.”
“Seriously?” asked Georgie. “That sounds pretty unlikely.”
“Well,” said Nathanael sadly, “I don't think we'll be able to ask the Ringmaker. He was right about not living through the end of the story.”
“I suppose he was the Christ-figure,” murmured Graybeard.
“When I was talking to him, when you two were climbing into the trailer,” said Georgie, “he told me he had a wife and three kids. He said I could come babysit sometime and he would pay me with custom rings.” She sighed.
“You count as a frequent user now, deary!” Miss Doris leaned back and patted her on the shoulder, searching for some way to comfort her “You'll get a ring.”
Georgie smiled politely back, but a sad silence still clung to them as they watched the cabbie work under the hood.

“And then!” Nathanael could hardly contain his laughter, “the cabbie gets back in the cab, starts it up, turns to Miss Doris, and says 'Whaddya say wes gets married, Doris?'”
The friends' table in the Great Hall erupted with astonished laughter. Benjamin leaned in to make himself heard.
“What did she say?”
Georgie took up the baton as Nathanael leaned back in his chair. “She slaps him,” she paused for a roar of laughter, “says 'Cabbie! Not in fronnadda fare!', takes off his hat, and gives him a big kiss.”
“She said she would invite me to the wedding!” she concluded proudly, as the laughter finally died down and the friends wiped the tears from their eyes.
“So we get to keep the rings?” Benjamin asked. “I still feel bad about mine. It took hours for everyone to calm down about the president.”
“I wouldn't worry too much,” Nathanael reassured him, “they're talking about giving him a Guinness world record for longest sneezing fit, and the news channels had their highest ratings this year,” he broke into a chuckle.
“I wish I'd gotten a ring,” Sheep said.
“You can have this one!” Graybeard handed it across the table, “I don't like popcorn, and I have the light ring anyway.”
“Thanks!” Sheep glanced around at the other tables and rubbed the ring enough to bring a few scattered kernels falling around them. He laughed “this could be great in the middle of class.”
“Well,” said Graybeard, “since this is a fairy tale there has to be a moral.”
“Don't use taxis?” chortled Nathanael, buttering his dinner roll.
“Don't stay home from a fairy world adventure to do homework?” suggested Graybeard, and Benjamin rolled his eyes.
“I know, I know. Next time I'll come, ok?”
“Good!” Graybeard nodded approvingly. “Now I'm going to get dessert, and when I get back I want to know what you all think. Was what they did ethical – the fairy council, I mean?”
“Creating a situation so bad that we would get drawn into it? Hmmm.” Nathanael fell into deep thought.
“I've got to go, guys,” Georgie smiled at them all as she stood. “It's been great.”
“Georgie,” Nathanael looked up from his thoughts to ask. “You said the cabbie let you pick a frequent user ring. What did you get?
Georgie grinned. “I don't think I want to tell anyone yet; you'll find out eventually.” she left in the middle of a chorus of disapproval and goodbyes.
Graybeard sat down with his milkshake. “So,” he said.
“So,” replied Nathanael, “there's a limited number of options when we're dealing with...”
The two philosophers argued ethics for some while, until finally Nathanael raised both hands with an air of finality. “Look, all I can say is that I'll be quite happy if no one ever puts a magic ring in my breakfast again.”
“Oh, I don't know,” laughed Benjamin, “it sounds like it was a lot of fun, and they were right, you know, you did save them.
“For now!” corrected Nathanael sternly, a finger and an eyebrow raised in caution. “We saved them for now! We never know when they'll come barging in again.” He glanced slyly at Graybeard, who was gazing thoughtfully past him, and, leaning across the table, drank his milkshake.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Nathanael Booth and the Ring of Power, Part VI


Dear Readers,

Goodness it's been a while. Spring 2009 was a rather hectic semester, and I was recalled from the majority of my writing and public musing to working and musing with my friends, my family, and my heavenly Father. I cannot express how tickled I am that so many of you keep reminding me that Graybeard and Georgie are still surrounded by blacksuits. If you don't remember the details, here is what's happened so far (I recommend you re-read part V, if nothing else):
Part V
Part IV
Part III
Part II
Part I
And if you are interested in a little update and plans for summer writing, click here.


A little man in a striped suit with well-gelled hair and polished, long-toed dress shoes shuffled in behind the blacksuits.
“Ahem!” he coughed in a faint, squeaky voice, his hands behind his back.
All three blacksuits spun around, and all three, catching sight of the little man, stepped quickly backward, lightening shooting at him from their wands.
He whipped his hands forward, and, through a sheet of blue and yellow lightening bolts, Georgie and Graybeard saw rings of all shapes and sizes shining and flashing on his fingers. The lightening played around him like fireworks, but did not touch him.
The blacksuits continued backwards until the two on the floor were shoulder to shoulder with Graybeard, who, not trusting the staff, decided to wait and see what the little man did.
What he did was simply to cross two of his fingers and rub them together, setting half a dozen rings clinking.
The remaining lights and the purple fire went out instantly. The darkness was total, overwhelming. The blacksuits on either side of Graybeard blended into the black and were gone. He lost his balance and fell to his knees; the staff shattered in his hands. Georgie fell through the dark with the boxes and Styrofoam but stopped suddenly a few inches from the floor.
The lights came back on slowly, to reveal Nathanael Booth standing in the middle of a field of wilted fescue grass, umbrella under his arm, holding his hat in one hand, running his other through his hair. Graybeard was helping Georgie regain her feet. The little man's hands were behind his back again, his mouth grinning innocently behind his mustache and his eyes blinking rapidly behind his thin-rimmed spectacles. The blacksuits had blinked out with the lights.
“If anyone comes up with a better diversion than that, friends, I will drink his milkshake!” announced Nathanael. “Allow me to introduce the Ringmaker. Mr. Ringmaker, this is Miss Georgiana Vurner and Mr. Graybeard.
“We ran all the way over here to help you,” he explained to his friends.
“Just in time!” noted Graybeard, shaking hands with the Ringmaker. “We certainly weren't trying to be a diversion,” he complained, “but I think Mr. Jones was right, it looks like we are the protagonists. By the way, Georgie, nice pitching.”
“Thanks! And nice to meet you, Ringmaker!” said Georgie, “by the way, thanks for the soft landing.”
“Not at all, not at all,” he said faintly but energetically. “Nothing to it if you have these,” he waggled his fingers for a moment. “Now, we must be going. We have already wasted precious time.”
“What happened to the blacksuits?” asked Graybeard.
“They were repulsed but not destroyed,” sighed the Ringmaker sadly. “I fear they will be after us again in no time at all. Come now! Come.”
“Not so much like our last guide,” said Graybeard as they emerged into the warehouse at large from the scarred returns room.
“No!” laughed Georgie.
“Better taste in head wear,” murmured Nathanael.
They made their way through the maze of stockpiled magical items, marveling at the size and decor of the warehouse almost as much as at the purported powers of the items contained within.
“So where are we going?” asked Graybeard.
“Miss Doris said we could find the cabbie somewhere in the other direction,” added Georgie. “We were almost there when the blacksuits caught up with us.”
“We're going to save the world, of course,” explained Nathanael. Georgie and Graybeard eyed him thoughtfully. “Ask him! Ask him!” Nathanael motioned violently with his umbrella at the little man who moved briskly through the aisle ahead of them.
“Um, Mr. Ringmaker,” began Georgie.
“We were wondering what the dickens is going on!” Graybeard laughed with frustration.
“Oh, of course, your friend here knows, but I haven't told you two. Here, here, walk beside me and I will explain.” He smiled broadly at each of them, then cleared his throat with a sound like a woodwind.
“There are many rings in this place, created in time immemorial by me and my forebears. Each one has a past, and also a future. You see, the first rings were created for great purposes, but it was found that people became bored with rings that gave them three wishes, or made them powerful, or got them friends. And the Ringmakers, to be frank, grew tired of making them. So we branched out. We made rings of humor, rings of sadness, and rings of weakness. What we soon found was that all of these were just as worthy of being called rings of power as those that could move mountains. Each ring, you see, has its own destiny. Each ring, properly applied, can be so important that, to be concise, the world would end without it.
“Applying this principle to our present crisis, the solution to the blacksuit problem is simply to find the correct ring and to implement it in the correct fashion, you see? I know the power of each ring, and now I know you. It should not take me long to determine which ring has the destiny of winning this battle against the blacksuits. But here we are.”
“You're right, Graybeard,” Georgie whispered triumphantly “We are the protagonists. He finishes talking and we arrive. Our time isn't wasted!”
“Yes,” Nathanael mused, “Capital, really.”
While they were whispering to each other, the Ringmaker had put a ring into the keyhole of an iron padlock on the door of a whimsically decorated trailer. Graybeard chuckled and pointed out the license plate to Nathanael. In place of county it read “2nd circle unlawful good.” The Ringmaker swung the trailer door open with amazing vigor, his shined shoes scritching on the ground as he half- pushed on, half-hung from the handle. Then he leaped, coattails flying, into the dark mouth of the trailer.
Nathanael ran a gloved finger along the rusty trailer step and sniffed. Graybeard, voicing a question about why the Ringmaker and his compatriots had chosen a trailer from that particular circle in which to store their rings, clambered up onto the step and stood shakily, brushing rust from his clothes before offering Nathanael a hand. Nathanael set his hat and umbrella in the dark opening and took the proffered hand, scrambling up quickly and almost tipping Graybeard back over the edge.
Graybeard turned to give Georgie a hand up, and blinked in surprise.
“Oh,” he said, as he heard her voice somewhere inside the trailer, conversing with the Ringmaker, and the two young men followed their companions inside.
At the far end of the trailer there was a single light bulb dangling from a string and failing to illuminate anything besides the three travelers, the Ringmaker, and a circuit breaker with a gold-plated panel and runes on the individual breakers. The Ringmaker reached up with both hands and flipped the main. Every wall and shelf in the room lit up with a moon-like blue glow.
“Well I'll...I'll...I'll drink his milkshake,” Nathanael laughed in astonishment.
They were not, as they had believed, standing at the back of the trailer, but at a pillar in the middle of a large room. The door to the trailer was there, fluorescent light streaming in, yet around it rose walls stretching out of sight. The walls, pillars, and shelves were similar in design to the outer warehouse, except for the strange blue luminescence. The room was lined with shelves. Some of the rings were in open canisters, as if they were popcorn. Others were on strangely lifelike human or animal hands that stretched up from the shelves, some with fingers arched desperately, as if trying to get out, others straight and elegant, as if in greeting. Some of the rings sat on pillows of black velvet, their jewels glinting against the dark backdrop. Some hung from chains around the necks of dwarf and elf dummies.
All three students breathed in slowly as their eyes breathed in the rings.
The Ringmaker tapped one toe on the floor for a few moments, pursed mustache gazing along the near shelves.
“D17, I'd bet my tophat on it,” he cried, and took off into the depths of the shelves. The students followed him to D17, a particularly small shelf. There could not have been more than a hundred rings on it.
“The ring we need...I'm sorry, the ring you seek is almost assuredly one of these.” He smiled broadly at them.
“Well, which one?” asked Nathanael.
“Oh, I don't know; we'll have to look at each of them.”
“Then how can you know it's here?” Graybeard pressed.
“Well if I didn't you would be in a pretty tight spot, wouldn't you? No way to finish the story then!”
“That's a little ridiculous,” said Graybeard.
“It's my purpose to know these things. Don't blame me for it.”
“That's an interesting epistemology,” Graybeard complained.
“Yes,” Nathanael's eyes sparkled with the reflection of the rings. “Knowledge through purpose. But is it truth?” He and Graybeard glanced at each other thoughtfully, their minds working extra hard. Then they both started talking at once.
“What's that smell?” asked Georgie after the discussion had continued for a few moments.
“Hmmm?” pulled out of their philosophical musings, the two sniffed the air. “It doesn't smell any stranger than it did before,” said Nathanael.
“It's gone; but there was something...”
The Ringmaker was behind them, muttering and shaking his head as he examined each ring. “Here's one,” he called to them, his voice drifting with whimsy “to be used when milking cows. It pasteurizes the milk. And here's one,” he raised a big green one with a jade stone, “that causes trees to grow. But no, no, they aren't what you need, I don't think.”
Despite the number of rings on the shelf, the Ringmaker was already nearing the bottom of the shelf.
“Well?” Graybeard glanced back towards the trailer door. “Can't you find it?”
“Apparently it's not his purpose too,” chimed in Nathanael.
“I have smelled that before,” said Georgie emphatically. This time everyone crinkled his or her nose as they sniffed.
“It's like perfume,” Graybeard said incredulously.
Bad perfume,” agreed Nathanael. “Did you happen to rub a ring of sickly-sweet smells, Mr. Ringmaker?”
“No, no, I wonder what that could be?”
The light from the trailer door seemed to blink for a moment. “Did you see that?” asked Graybeard, crouching down. Georgie and Nathanael nodded. The light blinked again.
“There's someone here, Mr. Ringmaker,” Georgie whispered, “and unless that perfume is a whole lot more popular than it ought to be, it's the blacksuits. Remember the one I hit with the jar?” she asked Graybeard, and he nodded violently in recognition. “That's it. It's got to be them.”
Then the lights went out. The echo of the circuit breaker being thrown lasted interminably, then a ring on the rinmaker's finger lit up.
“Is there another way out?” whispered Nathanael.
“No.”
“They'll be able to see us in that light...”
Even as Georgie spoke, a flash a blue lightening struck beside them, fragments of shelf, dummy, and ring singing past and into them. Graybeard held a hand to a cut on his temple as they darted deeper in amongst the shelves by the light of the Ringmaker's finger. Finally, they stopped to catch their breath. Just as the Ringmaker was extinguishing his light Nathanael noticed Georgie grimacing as she plucked a shard of silver shelf from her arm. “You all right?” he inquired.
“I'm fine. Ask Graybeard -- he's bleeding.”
“Nothing,” Graybeard hissed embarrassedly, and then spoke to the Ringmaker. “Did you find it?”
“No. No, and it wouldn't have helped if we had been able to stay, either,” exclaimed the little man. “That was the right shelf, I can feel it in my bones. But I checked every ring on it, and I'm just as certain that none of them are correct. I cannot understand it.”
“Then what do we do?” asked Graybeard and Georgie at the same time.
“There is nothing you can do!” boomed a deep voice from somewhere near the front, and a harsh snicker followed the voice, echoing out of the darkness on all sides of them. “We have you trapped. Your only hope is to give yourselves up.”
The three looked at the Ringmaker in the long silence that followed.
“Well?” asked Graybeard.
“Well what?” The Ringmaker snorted at them in his high voice, “I'm about ready to give up on you myself. Not much of a set of fairy-tale children, are you? Much too old, anyway. Fine! Give yourselves up.” He waved his be-ringed fingers at them dismissively.
The three stared into the dark, then back at him.
“I just wonder if it's safe...?” Graybeard explained.
“They will probably respect your world's notable neutrality in the matter,” the Ringmaker's emphasis on the word “notable” could only have been called bitter.
“You hold us responsible?” Nathanael's words were pitched high with disbelief.
“It's not like we could just send troops to help, even if we knew about it,” muttered Georgie. “But what will happen to you, Mr. Ringmaker?”
“Oh, they'll kill me, of course,” he replied.
“Oh!” they said.
“That settles it, then,” Graybeard shrugged, and Georgie nodded.
“We can't let them kill you. We'll just have to find a way out.”
“Could the ring have been moved?” asked Nathanael abruptly. He had spent the last few moments thinking and gasping with pain as he used a handkerchief to bind up a deep cut in his leg.
“Moved?” the Ringmaker cocked his head. “But I am notified of all in-use rings. But of course!” The Ringmaker hopped half a foot in the air in sheer excitement, shoes clattering in the dark. “That's it! There's a ringuser's special they just started. My helper elves haven't told me which rings they took for distribution yet. It must be one of those!”
“Ooooh,” said Graybeard, Georgie, and Nathanael.
“Too late,” said the deep voice, and the lights came back on to reveal that they were once again surrounded by blacksuits. A frog in dark glasses ribbitted its agreement from beside the men, and one of the blacksuits smelled sickly-sweet.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Stellar Solar Summer Days

What better way to break a several month's silence than by letting my readers know what I intend to publish during the next few!
To cut to the chase, I intend, no later than tomorrow, to upload the next installment of Nathanael Booth and the Ring of Power. I have written the end. How much longer can it take to publish it all?
After that I plan to work on posts every day. How often I will post depends on how much I get finished.
In the works are updates on Physics, Computer Science, sword-fighting, story-writing, a few historically-accurate Benjamin Dobbs episodes, and perhaps even something entirely new and science fiction-y...

And now, a brief update on my life, which will set the stage for some of those hopefully-pending physics and computer science related updates.
Today was my first day at work as an intern in the Astronomy department of South Carolina's beautiful Clemson University.
When I'm not learning about and hopefully contributing a tiny little bit back to astronomy, I plan to cook, write, read, study for the Physics GRE, and research graduate schools.
I will be working with IDL to learn, use, and, perhaps, improve a model of gas in what are believed to be protoplanetary accretion disks surrounding a class of observed stars known as Herbig Be stars.
This means I not only get work on real research using computer programming in an office in a physics department just a door down from real live physics graduate students and not very far at all from departments-full of living, breathing physicists, but I also get to live in my own apartment, shop for and cook my own food, and walk or use public transportation everywhere I go (all the italicized items are things that I think are just awesome, although I must admit that I may well be tired of quite a few of them by the end of the summer).
Nine weeks from now I will have, Lord willing, gained an entry-level knowledge of the field, written a paper and prepared a presentation on my particular work, spent a few nights at the SARA telescope at Kitt Peak, Arizona, and gotten paid by the NSF to do it.
I am daunted, but, today, quite happy about the prospect. While excitement over my project is one reason for my enthusiasm, I must admit that I suspect some part of it is due to all the other good things that have happened to me today. Frisbee tossing an old friend and some new, a successful journey to Wal-Mart and back with the treasure of a week's supply of food, and the unexpected arrival of air conditioner repairmen who installed a thermostat that, while set 4 degrees higher than the former, keeps the apartment at least 8 degrees cooler (I don't think the needle on the old one could go higher than 80). I hope my contentedness and joy will not prove to depend on my circumstances.