The zidi retweet #4

On March 2, 2004, the European Space Agency launched a space probe with robotic lander toward comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. On November 12, 2014 the lander touched down, experiencing a malfunction in its anchoring harpoons and suffering at least two unceremonious bounces (the mass of the robot is 220 pounds, but the weight at the moment of touchdown was half an ounce). Much is undetermined yet at least this much is clear: the lander (named Philae) is secure and functional enough to have started sending images back home.

Some observers have pointed out that ESA’s achievement is only technically a first, that robotic probes have landed on asteroids twice before. True. But the interactive map of Philae’s decade-long, Matrix-speed, four billion-mile pursuit is much cooler.

Contrary to our last several tweets, we haven’t only been watching comets this month. Here are the other stories that caught our attention:

1. “Kip Thorne looks into the black hole he helped create and thinks, Why, of course. That’s what it would do.”

2. The dog suicide bridge near Dumbarton, Scotland might not be haunted after all. It smells strongly of milk, which can disrupt a dog’s senses.

3. The latest successful Kickstarter campaign: a hand-held DNA discovery system named miniPCR.

4. “You may not be watching, but the telescreen is listening.”

5. Beautiful images of the Fallstreak Hole in Victoria.

6. “Descriptions differed greatly across individuals and included: (a) huge deformations of one’s own face (reported by 66% of the fifty participants); (b) a parent’s face with traits changed (18%), of whom 8% were still alive and 10% were deceased; (c) an unknown person (28%); (d) an archetypal face, such as that of an old woman, a child, or a portrait of an ancestor (28%); (e) an animal face such as that of a cat, pig, or lion (18%); (f ) fantastical and monstrous beings (48%).”

7. “If Strangers Talked to Everybody like They Talk to Writers.”

8. Lev Zhurbin conducts 11 New York subway musicians via Skype.

9. An iTunes glitch added a ten-second, static-only track to Taylor Swift’s 1989 album. The song briefly sat at the top of iTunes’ Canadian charts. Don DeLillo, author of White Noise, reviewed the white noise.

10. With apologies to your boss, NASA has a Soundcloud page.

11. A border agent loses his right to own guns after committing a nonviolent felony. Can he sell the weapons instead of merely surrendering them? The U.S. Supreme Court will decide.

12. What is it like to judge the Man Booker prize? It sounds intimidating, frankly.

–C.E. Alexander is the author of four short stories and might have seen a Fallstreak Hole in McKinney, Texas, although that might also have been the spicy food talking. Kindle Unlimited users can read his short story Book of Constants for free, here.

The zidi retweet #3

Maybe it’s that those of us in Dallas and the surrounding areas have been watching the news nonstop, but these stories absolutely crooned. Without any more ado, our top tweets of the last month:

1. Easily my favorite: Ultramarathoner Reza Baluchi set out to run the perimeter of the Bermuda Triangle in a 3mm-thick plastic sphere, armed only with a hammock, bottled water, protein bars, fishing gear and a satellite phone. After 70 nautical miles he inadvertently set off his distress beacon and the U.S. Coast Guard picked him up. The idea was to raise awareness for his Plant Unity nonprofit. Visit his website to learn more.

2. “Failures of the Electric Comet Model.”

3. “In April 2003 we formed a charitable group to remake an authentic, playable version of the famous Gold Lyre of Ur which dates from 2,550 BC.”

4. “The Krakatoa explosion registered 172 decibels at 100 miles from the source. This is so astonishingly loud, that it’s inching up against the limits of what we mean by sound.”

5. “The anonymous literary salon in a Brooklyn bar.”

6. Pharrell’s deposition…

7. …which was only slightly funnier than Robin Thicke’s deposition.

8. “CrossFit’s injury rate is about 3 injuries per thousand hours of training. That’s higher than college cross-country or swimming, but lower than lacrosse, field hockey or basketball.”

9. File this one under NSA_mission_creep: “The total would have been $7.9 sextillion. That’s equal to a stack of $100 bills (if that many actually existed) so high that it would go back and forth to the sun 28,769 times.”

–C.E. Alexander is the author of four short stories and zero peer-reviewed articles (unless you count Amazon reader reviews of Book of Constants).

Ray vs. Wal Mart Stores

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By C.E. Alexander

Twenty million customers will visit a Walmart today, and one million Walmart employees will show up for work. Statistically speaking, these 21 million people own about 21 million guns. Enough of them brandish their weapons—and the results are so combustive—that the world’s largest retailer has been forced to write a de-escalation clause into their national theft prevention policy: Continue reading

The zidi retweet #2

It’s not like the bad news slowed to a crawl after last month’s retweet. Perhaps this should become a monthly feature: a brief respite from war, war drums, Ebola outbreak and new Apple products. Here were some of our favorite articles we filed under Other News:

1. The interactive, one-billion-pixel view of Mars, as taken by the Curiosity rover.

2. We have mixed feelings about the “Go to Give it Up” lawsuit. We love Pharrell Williams, love Marvin Gaye, do not love Robin Thicke, but–above all else–music plagiarism is a blurred line.

3. Does Saturn repeatedly create and destroy small moons?

4. An unexpected crash in the market for nude celebrity selfies reveals just how deeply the hacker community has cut. Read this one with a stiff drink.

5. Amazon pays $1 billion for Twitch, a social media site for watching others play video games. And here we are in North Texas wringing our hands about a $60 million football stadium.

6. “I’ve met countless news consumers like that woman in Florida, trapped in a luxury high-rise, surrounded by information they refuse to access or consider.”

7. When this hoax-band actually released an album, their Wikipedia hoax-page kept the same URL and bio.

8. “If you choose an answer to this question at random, what is the chance you will be correct? A: 25%? B: 50%? C: 60%? Or D: 25%?”

9. For those of us living in the U.S. border states, there are familiar scenes at Spain’s land border with Morocco.

10. What We See When We Read.

C.E. Alexander is the author of four short stories and a short story anthology. Book of Constants is currently free, here.

Book of Constants second edition: excerpt

Tomorrow through Sunday, Book of Constants will be free to download. In expectation of the second edition we have reworked the excerpt, which we originally published in July 2013.

ZD-002: Book of Constants
A short story by C.E. Alexander
List price: $0.99
Promotional giveaway: September 10-14, 2014
ASIN: B00E1X3H5C
Book trailer
Literary, General Detective, Short Story
Purchasing link

We settle in a new town by misstep. I bring only my camera and some frames of captured sky. My son Kobe has a book he will not read out loud, and a stuffed frog his mother found while buying antiques. He seems to understand it, that she could rarely leave the house and that this toy was out of the ordinary. We had to name it for him, so I call it Cucumbers. Continue reading

What does the iOS 7 agreement say, exactly?

sepia phone

by C.E. Alexander

If you have an iPhone, chances are you operate it with iOS 7. And if you do, you have already agreed to the iOS 7 licensing terms. It’s not as Orwellian as you might fear: the addition of Siri introduced some creepy verbiage about contact information, and Apple makes no warranty whatsoever regarding the performance of iOS 7. And as for 2(d), which requires the user to store only those songs and images for which he or she holds the copyright? If we’re reading it right, it prohibits one of the only things we intend to do with our smart phones in the first place.

But otherwise none of the language is terribly inventive or alarming. Those of us who regularly execute contracts will not be surprised by anything here: don’t use the operating system to break the law. Don’t copy it or reverse-engineer it. Don’t sue Apple for more than $250. Don’t call if it malfunctions. If you disagree with any of these terms, go get a refund on your phone.

For those who would still rather be sure, we have taken the basic outline of the license, stripped away the legalese, and refitted the structure with something a bit more lightweight. The activists in the crowd are encouraged to discuss paragraph 4(c) with Apple directly. How can the user possibly agree on behalf of one contact in their address book, not to mention all of them? It’s an onerous, ridiculous, and vague provision. And it’s way too late for most of us to get a refund. Continue reading

Everything that rises must diverge.

Earlier in the day our kids invited me to join an action figure battle. My son began with a screaming frog that would build an army with only its voice. One soldier at a time, one shrill call at a time. My daughter formed a small battalion of medics. Insurmountable as a whole, you see, because if any one character was wounded, the others would step in at once and heal. That easy. My base was equally postmodern: an Iron Can controlled remotely by Iron Man. A Lego scout cruiser that launched into dubstep drive instead of warp drive. An energy shield powered by dice. Then I watched Divergent with my wife.

It is difficult to say which setting was more contrived: the five social divisions as detailed in the film, or the three-way brawl as created from scratch by two children and their space opera-geek father. As a writer and proud dad I would like to claim that our afternoon offered more preposterous rules and counter-intuition, but that might not be true.

For those readers not familiar with the Divergent plot, try one of these reviews (for example, Claudia Puig’s takedown for USA Today: “ironically for a film about non-conformity, it adheres to the playbook rather slavishly”). The only point we will add is the entirety of the dystopia: characters no longer carry wallets, amuse themselves with cell phones or check out hardbodies online. The Erudites are so tied up with thinking–and the Abnegations so occupied handing out food, the Candors so busy being candid–that a quick round of Xbox is out of the question.

Tattoos being the one exception. In the future there will be ink but no viral cat videos. And good riddance.

That the viewer spends so much time silently questioning logistics is unfortunate, because there is a great story inside the implausible totalitarianism and teen angst gone supernova (research opportunity: the number of viewers aged twenty and up who walked out when Tori said “You don’t fit into a category, they can’t control you”). If it takes a cast of beautiful Caucasians to offer up a YA metaphor for the caste system, so be it. Contrary to expectations, Shailene Woodley does not simply remove a pair of eyeglasses to reveal that—voila—Tris has been gorgeous all along. And rarely is a team of soldiers or law enforcement officials so open on the subject of fear. Indeed, in Divergent, the mark of successful warrior is one who does not shed her phobias too quickly or easily.

It is a familiar, engaging tale of resistance, done almost right. And that is why the viewer takes the repeated missteps so personally. The five-faction system is not just a house of cards, but an inverted pyramid of cards, glued together only by focus-group, age-specific symbolism (the plot owes its very existence to the fact that teenagers delight in stereotyping, but cannot stand being stereotyped in return). It is so regimented the narrative practically halts itself. Among our many questions: Once Tris chooses a faction, she chooses forever? And can never again see her parents? By law? If she fails in her training she will be cast out, forced to eat scraps from the street? And how exactly does that help stabilize the regime?

One more: why would an Abnegation ever marry another Abnegation?

The film tries to preempt our cross-examination of why? why? and why?. Enter the over-thinking Erudite, who faults human nature and our struggle for sovereignty: “The system removes the threat of anyone exercising their independent will.” But is the state-sponsored Aptitude Test not an official effort to quantify human nature into the five broad categories? And is the Choosing Ceremony not an official endorsement of independent will? If the answers to both questions are yes, then why are we here again?

There are two sequels in the works, and—though I have not read the books—it is a safe bet that the third film will see the entire system collapse. If so, credit the humble laws of gravity, not the end result of great character development and storytelling. If there is a message to writers here it is this: build us a new world. But live in it before we do. Walk around, kick the tires, have a Diet Coke. You just might find you filled the place with tripping hazards.