Timesense, a science fiction novella

Free July 7-8 on Amazon Kindle:


For millennia the starship voyaged from Sirius to Sol. It seemed as dead as any sterile asteroid drifting between the light years. Nothing moved within the frames of its unlit portals. Aside from the feeble reflection of starlight, the ship emitted no discernible electromagnetic radiation. The square kilometers of its solar sails were limp and the sail control threads were slack.

At one end of the fifty meter ovoid that was the ship’s body were the winches that manipulated the sail threads. Beneath the winch platform was the ship’s bridge. Like the rest of the ship, its interior was dark and still.

Prominently featured on the circular bulkhead of the bridge was a temperature gage, its needle pointing a sliver past absolute zero. The gage next to it indicated a cabin pressure of zero.

Floating in harnesses among the tables of levers and gages were the members of the crew. They were meter-tall figurines made of rock. Their lower bodies were like six-legged spiders. Their upper bodies were cone shaped and had four squid-like tentacles for arms. Each face was a pair of eye stalks above a toothless mouth and beneath an antenna mast.

The crewbeings were as unmoving as the rest of the ship. The last time they had moved, the Pyramids of Giza were still under construction. But after dreamlessly sleeping through almost all of human history, it was their time to awaken.

Timesense on Amazon Kindle

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The Ten Million Ton Space Elevator

Carbon nanotubes are often assumed to be the sole viable material for the construction of an Earth-based space elevator. However, carbon nanotubes in the lengths required for construction of a space elevator remain a laboratory curiosity. Is there an alternative to carbon nanotubes for building a space elevator?


The next strongest material is zylon. Zylon is a polymer chain of carbon and other atoms. It has a breaking length of 384 kilomometers, fifty percent greater than kevlar. Zylon also has an advantage over carbon nanotubes in that it is being currently produced in mass quantities at relatively low cost.

Unfortunately, when we plug the numbers for zylon into the basic space elevator equation, we get a taper ratio of a million to one. That means we’ll need at least ten million ton space elevator cable to lift a ten ton cable crawler. A mass of ten million tons would seem to rule out zylon as a space elevator construction material.

Nonetheless, if we’re going to put people into space, a space elevator is safer and cheaper than rockets, and even a ten million ton space elevator is better than none at all. So let’s look at three methods of moving large amounts of material in space and how they can be repurposed for provisioning a zylon space elevator.

Method #1: The Space Gun

Orbital space factories would operate in conditions of zero gravity and high vacuum. The manufacture of many products, such as fiber optics and microelectronics, could benefit from such conditions. But how do we supply the orbital factories with raw materials? If we use conventional rockets, the high launch cost will make space-based manufacturing unprofitable.


US military space gun. The technology is so off the shelf that it’s begun to corrode!

An electromagnetic ‘rail gun’ could change that. Built on the slopes of a mountain near the equator, the rail gun — or rather, ‘space gun’ — could accelerate payloads up to a muzzle velocity sufficient to achieve orbit. Once the capital cost of construction is absorbed, the cost of shooting payloads into orbit would be only the cost of the electricity. Once in orbit, the payloads of raw materials would be retrieved by robots and processed in factories. The finished products would be packed inside inexpensive ceramic re-entry shields for a soft landing in the ocean for retrieval.

An earth-based space gun could not be used to put humans into space. Even if it were several kilometers long, it would need to accelerate payloads at thousands of gees in order to reach the required velocity. This is a force that would easily squash humans.

A space gun could, however, be used to launch payloads of zylon cable that will be used to build a space elevator. If — when — space manufacturing takes off, the space gun may eventually have a launch capacity big enough to supply the required amount of zylon in just a few years of operation.

Method #2: Lunar Mining

As we continue to scour the surface of the Earth for metals, we are starting to consider mining metals and minerals from the Moon as well. Teleoperated robots on the Moon could prospect and mine for gold, platinum, palladium and other rare metals. This material could be sent back to Earth by utilizing a lunar space elevator. At the high tip of the elevator, we would then drop the payloads into Earth’s gravity well. Again we would use inexpensive ceramic shells for friction braking in Earth’s atmosphere and retrieval in the ocean.


NASA image shows astronauts on the Moon, but it would be more economical to send robots ahead to mine the Moon and build the colony.

Thanks to the Moon’s lower gravity, a lunar space elevator would be much shorter than an Earth-based space elevator and require no taper at all. A starter lunar elevator could be packed inside a single rocket payload. As lunar mining operations grow, the lunar elevator’s lift capacity can be increased with the use of zylon cable fabricated on the Moon from materials taken from the Moon.

With a big enough lunar elevator, we could consider mining the Moon for not-so-rare metals like lithium and silver. Once the lunar space elevator’s lift capacity is increased to hundreds of thousands of tons annually, we can use lunar resources to fabricate our ten million ton Earth-based space elevator.

Method #3: Asteroid Capture

Asteroids with diameters measured in tens of meters cross the orbit of the Earth every year. It’s statistically inevitable that one of them will impact our planet, and given the increasingly dense population of the Earth, a city could be struck with the kinetic energy release of an atomic bomb. Being able to protect ourselves from asteroid impact is seen by many people as a key priority for national and international space programs.


Mini asteroids are constantly wandering between Earth and lunar orbit. We don’t have to go far to capture one.

We need the technology to protect ourselves from asteroid impact. We need to develop robots and space tugs that can intercept asteroids and divert them from their paths. And before we can do the real thing, we need to practice. We need to use robots and space tugs to intercept and capture a mini-asteroid and put it in orbit.

Even these very small asteroids can easily weigh a million tons or more. Catch a few of them, and you’ve got enough material to build a zylon space elevator.

Seeing the Big Space Elevator Picture

As the Earth becomes increasingly overpopulated, global pollution and wars over resources threaten the survival of the human species. A viable system of space elevators could offer space colonization as an alternative to rationing, regimentation, and global conflict.


Space colonies have been considered by NASA for decades, but we’ll need a revolutionary space transportation system for people to colonize space.

Space elevators offer a way to economically transport large numbers of people from Earth to colonies in space. Building space elevators that mass in the millions of tons each would be a tremendous engineering challenge, but the cost would be far less having to rebuild civilization after a global thermonuclear war fought over resources and territory.

We can launch the zylon cable from Earth with space guns, from the Moon with a lunar space elevator, or we can mine the material from captured asteroids. With zylon as the construction material for space elevators, we presently have the technology to affordably colonize other worlds in space.

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Graph of IQ vs. US Household Income Percentiles

graph (1)

Here’s a graph that I made of IQ vs. US Household Income percentiles.  In other words, I looked up the percentiles for IQ and cross-referenced them with the percentiles for US Household Income.

Of course, financial status is a function of many factors such as intelligence, luck, hard work, and life choices.  Perhaps the value of this graph is in indicating how much financial status is affected by those other factors.

References are IQ Comparison Chart and United States Household Income Brackets and Percentiles in 2017.  I made this graph by using Create a Graph.

(And to promote my science fiction novel:  The Wizard from Earth.)

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Structures: Or Why Elon Musk Recommends This Book


Elon Musk has provided us with a list of fourteen favorite books that inspired him, and amid fantasy novels such as Lord of the Rings and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein is a book on material science entitled, Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down.

Structures was published in 1978 and was written by J.E. Gordon, a British material scientist. In the forward, Gordon refers to the book as, “. . . an elementary book about structures . . . stripped of its mathematics.”

Structures was one of only two books on Musk’s list that could be termed ‘technical,’ which caused me to think I should read it. And I wasn’t the only one who came to that conclusion. There were over two dozen holds on the single copy in the local library system, and I had to wait over a year to get my hands on it.

So why did Elon Musk recommend an obscure popular science book?  Given that the book is almost forty years old, is it still relevant and useful to today’s engineers? I’ll provide a brief overview here so that you can decide for yourself.

All Structures, Great and Small

As the complete title is, Structures: or why things don’t fall down, you might think that the book is specifically about buildings and bridges. Author J. E. Gordon, however, simply describes a structure as, “Any assemblage of materials which is intended to sustain loads,” and thus the book covers a broad range of subjects whose only connection is the application of the basic structural concepts of stress and strain.

For example, Gordon discusses design and operation of archery bows, why chariots had their wheels removed when they weren’t in use (because they tended to deform under loads), and the history of catapults — such as a Roman admiral who won a battle by hurling pots filled with snakes (which doesn’t have much to do with material science but makes an interesting anecdote).

Even farther from buildings and bridges, Gordon spends a fair portion of the book discussing structure in animals and plants. “Nature having invented life . . . it became necessary to devise some kind of container in which to keep it.” So he starts with the structure of the cell, and goes on to skeletons, and why plants are often better armored than animals (weight of armor affects mobility) and why birds have feathers (they give the wing a better lifting shape without adding excessively to weight).

The book also discusses the roles of the Poisson Ratio and Wagner tension field (which he explains) in dress design, how to keep boilers from exploding, and how to keep wings from twisting off airplanes (and how trying to keep wings from twisting off airplanes can cause even more wings to twist off airplanes).

While some of this discussion is technical, there are also poignant stories, like the tragic tale of the H.M.S. Captain, a nineteenth century combination sail and steam ship that was designed by a naval captain to his personal specifications after a massive publicity campaign, and which promptly sank in a mild squall with the loss of 472 lives and only seventeen survivors (the designer-captain having gone down with his ship).  Gordon writes that due to ‘muddling,’ the ship was about 15 percent overweight.  “If this had not been the case it is at least possible that the ship would have been a success and comparatively safe.”

But yes, in accord with the title, a lot of the book is about structures, and specifically, why those structures don’t fall down. So you learn about tensile strength (hanging cables) and compression (stacking things). And it turns out a lot of civil engineering isn’t intuitively obvious. For example, masonry buildings have enough compression strength to be built much taller than they were in ancient times, but stability problems arose. And why don’t cathedral arches collapse? Because of the statues on the sides. Really. Seriously. Who knew?

The Structure of Structures

Despite the assertion in the forward, there is a bit of mathematics sprinkled throughout the book. Not as much as there would be in a college textbook, but some of the algebraic formulas would keep you busy at a calculator for a few minutes if you didn’t let your eyes glaze over them (like I did). For the most part, they don’t get in the way of casual reading.

And for the most part, the book is fairly light reading. It’s written in a humorous style, which you can see from the chapter titles. Here’s a couple: Chapter 5: “Strain energy and modern fracture mechanics — with a digression on bows, catapults and kangaroos.” Chapter 12: “The mysteries of shear and torsion — or Polaris and the bias-cut nightie.”

Gordon also avoids dryness by focusing on the human drama behind engineering, relating how Robert Hooke, who originated Hooke’s Law (Strain is proportional to stress), was a ‘lady’s man’ disdained by Isaac Newton for dirtying the noble pursuit of science with the shabbiness of practical application, and how Galileo, forced by the Church to recant his discoveries in astronomy, spent his days under house arrest investigating the science of structures, “ . . . as being, I suppose,” Gordon writes, “the safest and least subversive subject he could think of.”

Philosophically, Gordon stresses a number of themes, and one of the key ones is to contrast theory versus experience. He is fair to both sides. He notes that nineteenth century engineers who knew little theory built bridges that stand today, while modern bridges could not be built without rigorous mathematical analysis. Even then, mathematical analysis is insufficient to identify local discontinuities that can lead to crack propagation and structural failure. (Although in the time since the book was written, computer simulations may have gotten good enough to address this concern.)

The Book and Elon

So why would Elon Musk recommend this book above the countless other books that he’s read? Perhaps one answer is that the book was published and enjoyed its heyday at the time when he was a kid. We tend to best remember books from our youth, and because we’re impressionable at that age, we naturally are more impressed by books we read then than at later stages in our lives.  But I think there’s more to it than that.

In researching this article, I came across an interview in which Musk is asked what he would do to fix the traffic problem on an LA freeway. He suggests double-decking the existing road with prefabricated sections, and the interviewer asks, “Would that appeal to your sense of aesthetics?” and Musk quickly replies, “We would make it look nice.” This sensitivity to aesthetics is also apparent in the design of Tesla cars and the Dragon capsule and is right out of the last chapter of Structures, where Gordon laments the loss of aesthetics in the pursuit of efficiency: “Is it not fair to ask the technologist, not only to provide artefacts which work, but also to provide beauty, even in the common street, and, above all, to provide fun?”  This view of aesthetics as both important and fun clearly influences Musk’s design philosophy, and it has been a successful business strategy for him.

But also, there’s a lot in Structures that has practical application to what Musk is doing with SpaceX and the Falcon rockets. In many ways, rockets are like buildings — buildings as tall as skyscrapers, that must be able to endure gravitational stresses many times higher than normal and vibrations greater than most earthquakes, that despite the need for immense structural strength must be made as light as possible or they won’t be able to do their primary function, which is to fly faster and farther than any vehicle ever made. Gordon devotes only a few words in Structures to rockets, but if you’re aware of the engineering considerations relevant to all structures, you will be aware during reading of how much of the book is critically relevant to rocketry.

Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down may have waned in popularity over the years, but thanks to Musk’s recommendation it is enjoying a revival and is a currently a bestseller on Amazon. The ninety-three reviews (at current count) rate it between four and five stars. So Elon Musk isn’t the only person who finds this book worthwhile. I think you will too.

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Multi-mode pen light: ATTiny85 with RGB LED


This is a bread board prototype of a multi-mode pen light. It shines white, red, green, and blue light. Intensity is adjustable. Strobe, emergency flasher, ‘psychedelic,’ and candle simulation functions. It’s powered by a USB phone battery charger pack and uses an ATTiny85 as the microcontroller.

Here it is in action:

Here’s the schematic:

RLM 85

UPDATE:  And here’s a sketch of what the completed flashlight might look like:

rlm 85 pen light


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Beyond the Blink: RGB LED multiple lighting effects with arduino, push button, and potentiometer

Ever want to do more with an LED than just blink? This circuit and source code demonstrates some creative possibilities for lighting effects with an RGB LED.

CC has descriptive subtitles. Sorry for the poor phone video quality.

Here’s a circuit diagram (for common anode LED):

Here’s the source code:

version 9.1 / September 2017

Written by Joe Schembrie aka Engineer Zero.
In the public domain.
No attribution necessary.
Alter as you see fit.

Controls an RGB LED in multiple modes. A push button changes
the mode and a potentiometer is used to adjust intensity,
rate, and color.


I used a common anode RGB, for which
analogWrite() goes HIGH for 0 and LOW for 255. You'll have
to revise your code accordingly if you use a common cathode RGB.

Lighting Mode Descriptions:

1 Candle
2 Red
3 Blue
4 Green
5 Tricolor
6 Strobe
7 Pure White
8 Broken Light
9 Yellow flashing (caution)
10 Psychedelic
11 Pulse

See my blog, http://engineerzero.blog for more fun stuff.


// here are the pin number assignments

int blue = 11;
int green = 10;
int red = 9;
int potpin = 3; // the pin the potentiometer is on
int button = 7; // the pin the button is on.

// various variables

int potval = 0; // adjusts for magnitude and rate
int choice = 0; // your mode selection

// these 'prev' values are for the psychedelic choice

long rprev = 128;
long gprev = 128;
long bprev = 128;

void setup() {

// initialize the pwm pins as outputs.
pinMode(red, OUTPUT);
pinMode(green, OUTPUT);
pinMode(blue, OUTPUT);


// seed the random number generator


void loop() {

// read the pushbutton to see if it's been pushed
int val;
val = digitalRead(button);

// val = HIGH means the button has been pushed
// and the mode is to be changed.

// SELECT CHOICE //////////////////////////////////////////////////
choice = choice + 1;


// indicate mode transition with blue flashes
for(int i = 0; i<5; i++){


// change this if you want more modes

if (choice == 12){
choice = 0;

//TIME TO LIFT BUTTON //////////////////////////////
// (for debounce)

while (val == HIGH){
val = digitalRead(button);


// read the potentiometer value
potval = analogRead(potpin);

// OFF


// RED

analogWrite(red,255 - potval/4);


analogWrite(green,255 - potval/4);


analogWrite(blue,255 - potval/4);

// tricolor
int tricolor;
for(int j = 0; j<4; j++){
tricolor = red;
tricolor = green;
tricolor = blue;


} // end of tricolor



//this is white
analogWrite(red,255 - potval/4);
analogWrite(green,255 - potval/4);
analogWrite(blue,255 - potval/4);

// Oh no, your light is broken!
int mag8 = random(0,255);
int d8 = random(0,100);

// Caution-warning yellow flashing light


// Psychedelic

// When tweaking code, careful with variable types.

long rnew = random(256);
long gnew = random(256);
long bnew = random(256);
long rval;
long gval;
long bval;

for(int i; i<101; i++){
rval = rprev + long(i *(rnew - rprev)/100);
for(int i; i<101; i++){
gval = gprev + long(i *(gnew - gprev)/100);
for(int i; i300){
p = blue;
p = green;
for(int i = 0; i<256; i++){
for(int i = 0; i<256; i++){

} // end of choice 11

} // end of loop, loop, loopy-doop!


void flicker(){

// makes a flickering candle light

int k = random(0,100);
potval = analogRead(potpin);
float p = float(potval)/1023;

int rmag = 255 - (15 + 155 * k/100)*p;
int gmag = 255 - (10 + 55 * k/100)*p;


int d = 50+300 * random(0,100)/300;




void tricolor(){

// transitions between red, blue, and green lights






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Making a flickering candle with an RGB LED and an ATTiny85 chip

Normally you don’t use an ATTiny85 to drive an RGB LED, because an RGB LED needs three pulse width modulation pins and the ATTiny85 only has two.  However, for the application of a flickering candle, you need only two PWM pins, the red and the green, and for that the ATTiny85 does the job just fine.

Unfortunately, my smartphone camera doesn’t do the color and intensity changes justice, but here’s the video:

Here’s a photo of the setup in the video:


As you can see, the through-hole chip is puny compared to the LED.

And here is an Arduino Nano pressed into service as an ATTiny85 programmer:


In case you’re familiar with using Arduino but unfamiliar with how to use an ATTiny85, Matt Richardson made a great video on the topic here:

To avoid the hassle of shuttling the ATTiny85 chip back and forth between the programmer and application breadboards, I recommend first testing your program (aka sketch) on your Arduino until it’s debugged, then moving the program from the Arduino to the ATTiny85 .

When converting a program from the Arduino to an ATTiny85, remember that you have to translate pin numbers.   I made a conversion chart here for doing just that.


If you like reading science fiction and fantasy, you might enjoy my ebook trilogy beginning with The Wizard from Earth.

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