Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Trip to the NIF

I've been in Livermore, California for the last two days so that I could attend the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Open House, celebrating the dedication of the National Ignition Facility.

My brother, Jim, is a programmer there, so he took me and a few other friends and relations on the grand tour. The lab had an impressive set-up - lots of informative displays, people standing by to answer questions, and best of all, the laser itself.

The beam starts out as one tiny diode laser pulse and a few coils of fiber optics. Then they split it into 196 beams and amplify each one a few million times. Each beam gets sent to a path about one foot square and sent through these immense flash-bulb chambers that look like a lightning strike when they go off. Where do they get the power for the flash bulbs? In the basement, an army of monstrous capacitors, rows upon rows, charge up in about sixty seconds and then release all that power so quick it makes the bundles of two-inch coax writhe like snakes as it carries the current to the flash bulbs.

Once the laser beam is pumped up by the flash bulbs, it speeds on to the switch yard. The beams are directed up, down, and all around so that they will focus and converge on one tiny point at the center of a huge ball of metal and concrete - the target chamber.

After walking through this gigantic facility, the size of three football fields, seeing all those flash lamps and capacitors, all that pink neodymium-doped phosphate glass and KDP crystal, and realizing that all this energy is going to be focused onto something the size of a coriander seed - I believe they could fuse some atoms with this thing.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Solar Cooker Season

See that? That's dinner cooking, nice and easy. By six o'clock this evening we'll have pulled pork in barbecue sauce and solar cooker potatoes. It took me about fifteen minutes to cut up the potatoes and get the cookers set up, and when dinner comes around all I have to do is set the table.

One of my professors at BYU invented this nifty cooking method. The cone-shaped reflector focuses the sunlight on a line at the center. In that line I put a black-painted mason jar with raw food in side, the lid screwed on tight, and a clear plastic bag around it for insulation. Then I sit back, relax, and let old Sol do all the work.

I love physics.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Finished At Last!

Last night I finished the last revision of EARTHCROSSER. After two hours of moaning and hissing, and sometimes laughing right out loud, I lay on the floor with my hands over my eyes. I felt like I had just given birth, except the pain was all in my head. My mom had sent me a list of revisions after she read draft 6 and I wanted to get them in while I still had time to rethink, so right after dinner I sat down at the computer.
“Mom, there’s a slice of cheese on the counter. Can I eat it?”
“Mom, did you say I could use a wire coat hanger to make my butterfly net?”
“Don’t talk to me right now, pleeeease!”
“Mom! Mom! Can I play on the Nintendo?”
“Ask your dad. Whatever he says.”
The answer should have been no. It was supremely hard to transport myself seventy-six years into the future in my imagination when my children were talking excitedly over their video game in the other corner of the room. NEXT TIME I want to write immediately after dinner I will do more than say to Russel, “I’m going to write for a while, is that okay?” I will make sure the children have something quiet and engaging to do in some location where I can’t hear them. Better yet, I’ll just remember that I can’t write unless they’re all asleep or all at school.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

You Need To Be A Little More Clear

"Becka? There's a place here where you need to be a little more clear." My husband sat on the couch, my freshly drafted manuscript beside him.

"Get a sticky note." I got up to come and see what the problem was. Grateful as I am for my husband's often insightful suggestions on my writing, it always irritates my perfectionist side that there are ever any suggestions to make.

"I'm just really confused by the way you start this next chapter."

I read over his shoulder, trying to figure out what the problem was and how many hours it would take me to fix it. "That's not the next chapter. Where's chapter fourteen? You're missing about eleven pages right here."

We both burst out laughing.

"I must have forgot to print that chapter out." I certainly hadn't forgotten to write chapter 14.

"Yes, you really needed to be more clear here."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Three-and-a-Half Chapters To Go!

By tomorrow, Draft 6 will be complete! Anyone have time to read a short science fiction novel for young readers this weekend? I would like a few test readers before I send it back to the editor.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Last Science Fair

"I love this, mom." My first-grader put his small hands around his dusty science fair trophy from last year, lifting it past books and clothes piled on the dresser. He held it up to his chest and looked in the mirror.

Proud but sad, I smiled at him. "You won first place in the last science fair."

This year our school had no science fair. Instead of cardboard presentations that would fill the cafeteria, the children made power-point presentations at school. The first-graders did their experiment in class. I had nothing to do with it. At first I felt relieved - science projects took many hours of my time. One year I had three children in elementary school, and I thought science project season was going to kill me. Let them do it all at school and let me get on with my busy life.

But what is it worth to walk a child through answering a question about the world by using the scientific method? What is it worth to have a child win first place in the science fair? I remember how a writing contest in elementary school changed the course of my life. Maybe my son will want to be a scientist, or at least he'll have a friendly feeling towards the scientific world, because he remembers how good it felt to win that trophy.

I want my science fair back.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


At 5:30 this morning I donned my space suit (dust mask, gloves, work clothes) and climbed into the attic. I should have done it last Saturday, but it hadn't really got hot yet and I was imagining that we could just go all summer without turning on the AC (as we live in Las Vegas, Nevada this demonstrates a serious disconnection with reality).

Many years ago I discovered a leak in the big air duct in the attic, the one that leads from the intake to the machine. At some point someone had tried to climb over the pipe and put their knee down on it, flattening the duct and popping a seam open. Some cracked and crumbly duct tape from an earlier repair was no longer doing any good. Hot, smelly, dusty attic air was being sucked in to my air conditioning unit and then spewed around my house.

Back then, I used fresh duct tape to secure a sheet of aluminum foil over the crack, and that worked for a few seasons. Then last winter I could smell attic air every time the furnace came on. I determined that this year I would not turn on the air conditioning until I had done the repair right.

The grey stuff we call "duct tape" is not very good for repairing ducts. It gets old, cracks, and fails. Nowadays they make a special tape just for repairing metal duct work. I bought some. Armed with my tape, scissors, and a roll of aluminum flashing, I climbed up through the hole and into the attic.

Sure enough, my aluminum foil repair had a rip in it. I tore it away, dusted the duct off, and started the repair. Dust, dust everywhere! Every minute or so I had to wipe dust off the duct so the tape would stick. Crouched precariously with my feet planted on rafters and sharp roofing nail ends inches from my back, I worked while my legs got shaky from the strain.

At last, "TURN ON THE AIR! I WANT TO TEST IT!" I shouted.

"Okay!" my husband's voice called up from the other side of the ceiling.

I felt all around with my hands, but no air moved near my repair. While I was up there I checked the rest of the pipe and found another small leak which I taped up. Last of all I wrapped the insulation blankets around the duct and taped them in place.

I got back out of the attic at about 6:40. After I had cleaned up I stumbled down to the front room and collapsed in a chair. It happened to be the chair that sits right where the air from the vent blows - the best spot in the house on a hot day. Cool, refreshing air washed over me, and not a hint of attic smell. Mission accomplished.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Finished At Last

Draft 5 is officially done, but I'm not taking test readers on this one. It is too much of a mess yet. I'm giving myself a break and reading "Spindle's End" before I start mark-ups for draft 6. I know I'm in no state to work on my book right now because I wanted to take a red pencil to Robin McKinley.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Practical Pandemic Preparation

Apocalypse fans haven't given up yet, but it looks like the current swine flu outbreak isn't going to be The Big One.

It is, however, a good reminder to get ready. We all know it's coming someday. Besides having several weeks of food and basic supplies set aside in case I want to avoid breathing in germs at the Wal-Mart, I like to have a simple flu kit for home care.

Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, Diphenhydramine (Benadryl), and antacids are all helpful to alleviate flu symptoms. I have enough of each of these for maximum dosage for two weeks per person in my household. I also have some sugar and salt on hand to make oral rehydration solution. The recipe is: 1 quart water, 3 Tbsp honey or sugar, and 1/4 tsp salt. Dehydration kills flu victims that would otherwise recover - keep hydrated! Of course you should call your doctor if you get the flu - he or she will tell you how much of everything you can take and help you decide if you need to go to the hospital or not.

I made up my last flu kit during the bird flu scare a few years ago. Everything in it was expired, so I bought a fresh batch today at Costco. Cost me all of $26.07 for all the OTC meds I needed for seven people. It's simple. Be prepared.

I Haven't Been Punished Yet

Three years ago I did a Career Week presentation on being a homemaker. Why not? No one pays me for it, but that's what I do. One of the teachers made me feel really good by saying, "I want to come live at your house."

This year I went ahead and signed up for Career Week as an author. Why not? No book contract yet, but I've sold a few stories to magazines, and one editor said she'd look at a rewrite of my latest manuscript. I'm up and coming!

I presented thirty-minute sessions for eight different groups of children ranging in age from Kindergarten to third grade. The third-graders impressed me by naming over a dozen authors in just a minute or two. It reminded me why I'm doing this. We talked about practicing writing every day, I showed them how to write a cover letter to submit a story to a magazine, and then I talked about how to publish books (that last one on a theoretical basis only).

One of my friends told me that her son came home and reported, "We saw Mrs. Carlson at school today. Did you know she's written three books but she hasn't been punished yet?"

Someone punish me, please.

This is Your Lunch?

Today at school we had Family Picnic Day. On this day, parents can come in during lunch period and have a picnic lunch out on the school playground with the students.

I was running late this morning so I had my boys get the hot lunch. Right now hot lunch costs $1.50 at our school.

This is what they got:

Now, I know there are budget cuts and food prices have gone up, but really! Three big crackers, tomato sauce, and some shredded cheese? It wasn't even warm. There was ice on the bottom of the sauce.

My son assured me that hot lunch is usually better than this, but it still cost me $1.50.