The Cat Who Drank Too Much Coffee

(It’s me, everybody…)

Five months ago I submitted a story to a Flash Fiction writing contest with my writing group, which I normally do every year. For those who don’t know, flash fiction is short short fiction, usually meaning 1000 words or less, and sometimes even shorter than that. While 1000 words sounds like a deluge of creativity when we are in 5th grade and trying to come up with an essay, for people who like to write it feels draconic. As you type of your story, you end up crashing into that 1000 word wall faster than you’d think, often running out of space about 2/3 of the way through your idea.

To makes things even tougher, this contest gives you assigned prompts that have to be part of your story as your write. The prompts can be a blessing and a curse, helping your think in new ways, but also limiting what you might want to write about. One year, my prompt included the word “farrier,” which I had to look up. I still wrote a fun little story, but didn’t feel that (or my past attempts) were complete ideas. This year, though, I loved the prompt I got: lawyer + internet cafe. I decided to take it in the direction of a cat cafe, with a lawyer who was an expert on magical law. Because hey, who doesn’t like a little extra magic in their stories.

Cats, coffee, magic, and detective work? Yup. It’s got all of those. What more could you ask for? Well, by the time the results came out, I could only vaguely remember what I’d submitted. Yet the story worked out and the judges liked it too. I scored 22nd, just barely squeaking into the top 25 to get included in the story anthology. You can read more about it and pick up a copy on the TL;DR Press website, or email or message me to send you a link.

My Thoughts on the Hottest Summer Ever

Climate change is a reality that seems to be impacting things more and more every dayOf course, some folks still have doubts. Changing the way we generate energy, create food, and run the economy is a huge deal. If you feel uncertain or want to be convinced, there are lots of great resources out there, including Yale Climate Connections. After all, questioning things is natural and necessary – it’s part of the scientific process and science sometimes gets things wrong. Plus, the climate of an entire planet is a complicated thing. I mean, maybe it’s easier on Mars where the weather is either “clear” or “dust storms,” but on Earth we’ve got a denser atmosphere and huge oceans.

I made this image with Stable Diffusion, an AI text-to-image generation algorithm. Technology has become incredibly powerful!

Even setting aside climate change, I think we can all acknowledge that the Earth is changing. There are more people living on our beautiful blue planet every year, with current estimates at about 8 billion. And of course all those people need food, water, air, and shelter, along with other tools and resources, like some way to participate in the global economy. Inevitably we all contribute to the changes to the planet. We all love new technology, including things like cell phones and streaming services like Netflix. We also love central air and heating, bigger spaces to live, and comfy clothes and furniture. Just looking back to the 80’s, I was born into a place where we had no central AC, no cell phones, and no computers in most peoples’ homes. Yet in the blink of an eye, I live in a world where I’m writing this on a glowing rectangle, listening to music streamed through thin air from computer servers in California, driving tea flown halfway around the globe, and reaching out to friends and family.

Things changed fast.

So let’s say you’re convinced climate change is happening, at least some way or another. Suppose you don’t think humans caused it. Even then, we should try to do something right? Sea levels have already risen about 7 inches in the past century, and they’re slated to rise higher. States like Florida, Louisiana, and Hawaii are already seeing changes to their coastlines, with beaches disappearing and coral reefs dying off. In the past month, smoke blanketed Chicago, along with much of Canada and the US, causing awful air quality and making the entire city smell like a campfire. Not the worst smell, honestly, but not great for my 5k training either. Temps are also rising, and yeah, we have AC, solar panels, and homes to hang out in, but I love the outdoors, and of course fresh water and air are essential for our survival. As you can see below, the trend is upward, and this year we’re seeing extreme temperature in some places like we’ve never seen before. So what can we do?

Solar and other renewables are great, but require limited resources to construct. I don’t mean to dismiss them, as I’ve seen solar deployed successfully in Hawaii, but there are also limits to how we can use them. Solar, for example, needs lots of sunny days, and wind needs wind, obviously.

Along with those – Nuclear power is one answer with tremendous potential. Of course, there can be downsides there too because we need to store the waste somewhere and work hard not to have accidents. But there are alternative. One of the best options is thorium power, with reactors currently only being developed in China, which has massive thorium reserves. The US has recently made major headway into fusion power, a type of nuclear power that works like the sun by “burning” hydrogen nuclei into helium and turning a little bit of mass into energy along the way. This tech is still in the infant stages, with a power plant not planned until at least 2035. We need to start adapting now, however.

Planting more trees, restoring forests, and preventing further forest fires is a great first step. Trees suck up carbon dioxide and clean the air. Plus, they provide beautiful outdoors spaces for humans and animals to enjoy.

So-called carbon capture technology may also help, where we capture carbon dioxide from power plants, cars, and other process and store it deep underground. But this is essentially just reversing the process of burning oil, and is extremely inefficient. Plus, it’s not enough just to capture CO2 that’s newly released from cars and factories – we has to suck up the old stuff too, because it has nowhere to go. Some billionaires has discussed releasing reflective bits of metal into the atmosphere or space near the planet to block sunlight, which would certainly work, but mean darker days and unintended consequences for plants, animals, and humans.

Another question is – why are we still on this path? Because it’s hard to stop using oil? Surely we can do it. Humanity has adjusted from using slaves, animal assistance, wood burning stoves, and coal in the past.

In the long run, nuclear and carbon capture technologies seem to me like the most obvious options. Cities across the globe can be powered by fusion and thorium reserves, as we have plenty of both resources. And nearby we’ll have massive carbon capture tower and filters, power by the nuclear plants, to drain carbon from the atmosphere and return it to the ground where it belongs. Maybe this seems naive or too utopian. But humans have overcome worldwide problems in the past, and I’m hoping we can again.

In Rainbows, In the Inaka

In the Fall of 2007 I moved to Japan, to a southern seaside town that was slowing decaying due to population decline. The place smelled like fish, and was dark and cold at night. You could see the stars splayed overhead like a frosted blanket, and at night the whole place grew dark and quiet, with only the waves and the fighting cats making much noise. There was jungle overtaking the houses, and many old homes fallen into disrepair. There were monkeys and hawks and feral cats (some of which were eaten by the hawks), and spiders in neon orange and green.

The nearest native English speakers was an hour’s drive away, and man it was a lonely year of my life. I had a girlfriend off in the city and fell in love, but the 3-hour separation was a lot. At the time, I had this tiny 2-door Japanese stick-shift that I used to drive through the hills and mountains from my village up to the local city and back, and spent hours listening to the same old CDs left behind by my predecessor.

When I saw Radiohead had an album coming out, and that they were self-publishing and I could order from anywhere, I was ecstatic. Music was trickier to acquire in those days, especially in Japan where CDs cost double or triple what they did in the US. True, you could delve into the darker corners of the internet and torrent what you needed, but new music was sometimes tricky to find, and the chance of getting caught meant one risked the approbation of the local government and the board of education.

In Rainbows was downloadable after you purchased it, so I bought a copy and burned my own CD, which soon became my go-to album for driving up and down the lonely seacost, to Matsuyama in the North.Those riffs came to define that year of my life. And when my girlfriend and I broke up that winter, it became the soundtrack for the long nights that eventually turned into spring. Spring was good, and the summer after it even better.

Stories Published Last Year!

2020 into 2021 was a rough year and also challenging professionally. I struggled to find my way as a postdoc and took on all sorts of new challenges at work. I also experimented with new voices in my short stories, which usually got me rejected, but also saw a few things get published.

My favorite of the bunch was “Electric Gnome” — a short story describing a friendship between two guys in Japan who are separated by work, time, and distance as the years carry on. It was picked up by TL;DR Press for their charity anthology called HOPE, available here.

Second, I’m delight to announce that my short story called “How to unravel reality in 7 easy steps” was picked up by Bandit Fiction. It’s a first date story that takes place in Hawaii, where an unlikely couple gets to know each other over drinks. I broke one of the modern rules of short fiction by having the story take place in a bar, but it was a blast to write.

Finally, I had two stories picked up by Ripples in Space. One is a science fiction piece called The Land Where Demons Tread,” which was inspired by old-school style of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. It’s featured on their audio podcast and it was definitely a humbling experience hearing my writing read out loud, instead of by the voice in my head.

Finally, I also found a home for my story “Happy to Have Us Animals” with Ripples in Space, as one of the stories on their website. It’s a short fiction piece about humans who have blended their genes with animals and been exiled to faraway planets. I hope you enjoy them — or at least one of them, as four stories is a bit of a handful.

Birthday Reflections: 2021

Hi everyone! As always, thank you for the birthday wishes and the donations to the National Math and Science Initiative! I cherish all of your friendships and our experiences throughout the years, even the ones where we end up cursing at each other in the end. Thanks for sticking with me through this strange adventure that has led me from Baltimore, to rural Japan, Hawaii, and now Chicago: the city of wind, physics, donuts, coffee, and pizza.As you can imagine, my 37th year on the planet was an unpredictable ride, from the ever-looming challenges of covid to the riots and mass protests just down the street, the election, the canceled weddings and lost year of Burning Man, the missed holidays with family, and even the occasional road trips. My grandma passed away from the virus, but she had an incredibly long and fulfilling life and many grandchildren and I’m grateful I got to know her. Thankfully, the rest of the family managed to stay mostly healthy.At work on MicroBooNE, I became “run coordinator”, which meant being on call 24/7 for months at a time, though luckily things were relatively quiet due to covid-related safe mode operations. Our team at IIT also put out a paper — thanks to massive help from folks at UTA in Texas and my boss who helped get it into shape. Writing wise, I had a couple of stories published, and far more rejected, but that’s all part of the experience; I’m working on a new book and some of you are helping read and edit my previous one, so thanks for your input! Overall I’m grateful for last year and the constant companionship of Gina and Jiffy at the house, and the rest of you via Zoom, facebook, instagram, or random phonecalls. Let’s keep in touch and make 2021 a year to remember for all the right reasons.

On Einstein, Racism, and Physics

We all know him: the wild hair, the mustache, the gentle smile. Einstein the quirky physicist has become a bit of a legend. He’s perhaps best known for penning his theories of relativity, which describe gravity and the movement of the cosmos at the grandest scales. But Einstein was more than just the funny image we see on t-shirts, or the genius we read about in textbooks. He was an eccentric, sometimes shunned, who sometimes took surprising stances (for his day) on social issues.

Unbeknownst to many, Einstein was an outspoken proponent of civil rights and an advocate against segregation. He lectured at a historically black college, co-chaired the co-chair the American Crusade to End Lynching, and used his fame to help out African Americans who were in trouble, once giving his hotel away to a singer who was denied a room.

Of course, it’s not always so simple, and he was called a hypocrite and an “enemy of America” by right-wing senator Joseph McCarthy, and recent stories have tried to paint him as racist because of comments in his travel diaries. Some of the comments he made were definitely troubling, especially from his visits to China, but I hope — and believe — that his overall legacy was positive. Certainly, for the time, his advocacy was radical, and probably dismissed as “idosyncratic” or part of his general weirdness.

Physics is still a field that’s low in diversity, where there aren’t nearly as many African Americans, women, or other groups (like Native Hawaiians in Hawaii) as you’d expect. It always makes me sad how this causes stress to colleagues who aren’t part of the ‘majority’ (white dudes) and sometimes I’ve been part of the problem. For example, friends and I teased female classmates in undergrad and I’m sure it was frustrating and discouraging. I’m sure I said shitty things at other times, too. I’m sorry!

I’ve also noticed that we’re hard on ourselves and each other, and people are quick to say ‘They did __ but they weren’t a very good scientist/physicist.’ The good teachers and science communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson are somewhat looked down up, too, even though they make such a huge difference in inspiring people and reaching out to the public. I know I would never have gotten into physics without a great high school teacher (an incredible priviledge on my part!) or the popular science books and shows I enjoyed along the way.

Here’s hoping we can embrace the good weirdness and diversity and positive efforts from people like Einstein as an important part of the scientific culture! As in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, when scientists from across the world came to the US, we only learn more by sharing our field with new and incredible people. It’s been a pleasure meeting colleagues from different backgrounds, lifestyles, cities, and countries, and they’re part of what makes our field of physics such an exciting place to be.

Check out my new short story in “Nope” from TL;DR Press!

I did a thing! It’s called “Conspiracy Theory Weekly Issue #289” and it’s out in eBook and print on amazon. This story is about an investigator tasked with convicting the publisher or a conspiracy magazine. At first, it seems like an open and shut case, but something about it doesn’t quite add up, and he takes to the streets to find out more. Grab some coffee, smoke a spliff, and read along!

‘Spacesuits Won’t Help You Here’ has been published in the Reddit Writers Anthology!

Reddit is usually where I go when I want to kill time and brain cells. Usually. Back in the Summer, a group of writers came together from their /r/writing forum to join our powers together and help promote each other on twitter. There are virtual meetups, writeins, novel reading groups, kittens photos, and other shenanigans going on.

We also decided to put our skills to good use for Doctors Without Borders and gather stories for the first anthology of writing from redditors! You might guess it’s all stories about cats, weed, computers, and video games, but we also have sci-fi, fantasy, crime, and, more weirdly – a psychedelic adventure story about Burning Man written by me!

I love the way it turned out and I’m especially grateful to the editors and organizers, including Joe Butler (@writelikeashark) who put the whole thing together, @AlexHareland, and my editor @AizelleRaine. Hopefully they’ll be another anthology down the road!

Check out our group on Twitter – #redditwriters – we’re always welcoming new people!

Silent City, my novel, is now live on Amazon!

After year of writing, editing, cover changes, submissions, suggestions from friends, interruptions due to grad school, and other obstacles, it finally exists!

I started writing this novel years ago for NaNoWriMo. It wasn’t my first attempt at NaNoWriMo, but it was the first one that I thought might turn into something readable. The basic idea was to create a ‘Spirited Away’ or ‘Alice in Wonderland’ set in Baltimore, but with a more realistic feel and autumn vibe. Initially, a young girl named Anne got lost in the city and her imagination transformed the fast food restaurants and dirty panhandlers into an fantasy adventure as she searched for her mom. This concept ended up being pretty hard, basically because it’s a crazy challenge to actually describe things from a 5 year-old’s perspective. Like, can they reach the door knob, or read, or handle locks or money or other concepts? Do they know how street signs work or how the city is laid out? Probably not.

So it evolved into a story about an 11 or 12 year old girl who wakes to find the city completely abandoned. She meets her neighbor’s cat (who seems to be able to talk, now) and leaves Mt. Vernon to explore and figure out what happened. They encounter ghosts and monsters and other creatures along the way, and end up getting lost among some of Baltimore’s more well known monuments and locations as well as meeting a few of its ignoble celebrities.

Today it’s available on Amazon for free and later it will be $2.99. Soon it will be in print as well. I’m super excited and can’t wait to finally hold a copy in my hand, which will be a super surreal feeling after all these years.