Twitter Algorithms

Did you like this?

This week’s tempest in a tweetpot is bubbling over because Twitter has announced they’re going to replace the current chronological stream we all know and love with a Facebook-like “algorithm-based timeline”. Naturally, people being people, the standard reaction is “OMG NO! CHANGE WE FEAR IT WTF!!!” followed by a stream of eggplant and hotdog emojis hitting a monkey in the face.

Speculation ensues.

There is some validity to this concern. Journos rely on Twitter for up-to-date information for breaking news. This becomes problematic if the timeline isn’t accessible directly, and it would be a strong move if they made that available by subscription to everyone. It used to be possible for news organizations to pay for high speed access to their datastream, though I’m not sure if they still offer that. Certainly not for mortal humans. Then again, if most of Twitter continues to work the way it does now, and searches are visible via the current livestream mechanism, this concern won’t be a big deal because you’ll find the hashtag in your “Breaking” or “Trending” section, click on it and see the full stream.

Using Twitter as a mechanism for social activism is problematic. The 140 character limit isn’t enough to write anything meaningful and the kernel gets reduced to a hashtag. If it becomes popular, that hashtag soon gets flooded, sometimes obscuring the original message. At least you can save it for later. Obscuring the timeline behind an algorithm could have a chilling effect on Twitter as an activism tool and the conspiracy-minded might be wondering if that’s one of the real reasons behind it.

I think this is the crux of the problem: If you don’t know how the algorithm works and how it can be tuned by the people running it, then you have no guarantees you’re seeing what you want to see. Remember when Google started tailoring search results for people based on their “preferences”? There was a brief outcry against that but now it’s no big deal that your search results and mine don’t show the same thing when we search for “local preowned medical instruments”.

Some have recommended switching to using Lists to view the timeline as it is now. It’s a feature most people don’t use, myself included, but may end up being a sneaky way around the new algorithmic features. Still others are advocating for the creation of a distributed, publicly-controlled Twitter alternative. (Remember No?) These services tend not to do very well, get sparsely populated by whatever self-selecting subgroups find them first and then die slow lingering deaths of irrelevancy. Maybe they were ahead of their time and we’re ready for something like that, but good luck moving a jillion people to a new service.

Maybe it won’t be horrible! Maybe everybody’s just getting freaked-out for no reason! It’s just Twitter, people. The vast majority of it is completely uninteresting to the vast majority of the population. It’s for marketing and funny pictures and vines (ha) and occasionally for tracking breaking news. Will I miss individuals’ late night, can’t sleep tweets or today’s sandwich? Maybe, maybe not. Twitter is a forgettable service 99% of the time. When I take time off to disconnect, one of the things I always realize is just how much I don’t miss it.


Book 2 Progress Report

a very grumpy cat

Hey there. How’s it going? Enjoying the Winter? Me too!

So, I wrote that book thing, and a bunch of you read it and a few even reviewed it and I think that’s super. Typical responses go something like, “OMG cliffhanger, you bastard!” followed by, “BOOK 2 NOW”.

Regarding the first, I am sorry about that. I literally split this book in two knowing it was going to take more time to get the second 2/3 into shape. Couldn’t be helped, really. I feel your pain. Also, this is a series, so please bear that in mind. Sometimes things don’t go the way you want them to.

Regarding the second part of those comments, Book 2 is underway. I was traveling last week so didn’t get a lot done. Now I’m 2/3 (seem to be hitting that fraction a lot today) through the first real pass since it was in draft form. I’ve deleted approximately 10000 words from this book and it’s still clocking in at 107k currently. I expect to lop another 5-10k out of it while potentially adding a bit more color to a few sections that need it. I’m hoping to finish this pass before the end of this month of January of 2016. Final edits happening in February if everything goes according to plan. I’ll probably put it up for preorder around the end of February with an expected release date around March 30th.

I still don’t have a cover so if you are or know an artist who’s into scifi, I would love to talk. Or an editor. Please help me.

This is an aggressive schedule. I fear slippage. Book-sized chunks of writing are hard to deal with. I can barely write a blog post like this one without losing my shit and flooding it with apostrophes and dropping commas and…

What comes next? I have about 50k words written for the as-yet-unnamed book that will follow Book 2. It’s rough, first-draft level stuff, but it’s a start and I know where I want it to go. This is a long haul, but I can see where I want this to end. I hope we can get there.

(funny cat image courtesy of Internet)

Photos of 2015

Warning: Navel-gazing ahead. Feel free to skip straight to the pictures.

Best of 2015 Image Gallery on Flickr


2015 was a fun year for me, photographically-speaking. I was lucky enough to travel to two (2!) places in the country I’ve never been to: Cape Breton and Newfoundland. I lived in Cape Breton briefly as a very young kid and went on a trip with family a little later, but didn’t really remember it. It’s a beautiful place. I’d never been to Newfoundland at all and it was one of those bucket-list trips. Absolutely spectacular landscapes unlike anyplace I’ve ever been. The highways, while considerably-improved in the last decade or two, will still try to kill you. We only saw one moose, despite the road signs warning about them. It was a juvenile that had been hit by a car or truck. He didn’t make it.

the cabot trail

I traded in my Nikon gear for more of the Olympus Pro lenses. It was a tough decision, but I hadn’t been using my D800 nearly enough and it was stupid letting it sit around in its bag. The trip to Newfoundland was kind of an unwritten test to see if I could still justify keeping it. Unfortunately, after a heroic struggle up and back down Gros Morne, without a single lens change and only a couple of 35mm shots taken, I was done with it. The Olympus OM-D is a great system and I’m in love with the lenses I have for it. We still have one D800 in the house if I ever really need the extra megapixels.

This year I sold some prints for the first time thanks to Deb’s Etsy shop. This is when I finally realized that there’s very little difference between 16 and 36 megapixels unless you’re printing very very large. I’m looking forward to making some more prints this year and if you see anything you like, drop Deb or I a line and we’ll set you up. Custom sizing available.

My other big decision, photographically, was sticking with Flickr, despite the sense that it’s getting a little rickety around the edges. The truth is, I still haven’t found a platform I like better. 500px feels cold to me, the photos they showcase all have a very similar aesthetic. Some great photographers on there, to be sure, but it’s just not for me. Instagram is a mess as a photography platform and I don’t understand the community there. Facebook or Google? No.

Anyway, enough ruminating. I’m going to celebrate the beginning of 2016 by watching the Canadiens and Bruins duke it out on the ice in Boston. Happy New Year! :)

(go Habs!)

quidi vidi, nl

Editing from the Surface of Titan

Titan's surface from 10000km, infrared, false-color image.

Yesterday, NASA released the most complete view of the largest moon in our solar system. A false-color composite taken on November 13th at high altitude. Cassini used its infrared, moderate resolution camera system. allowing it to see through the thick hydrocarbon atmosphere. The 1KM/px resolution image shows landmasses, dunes and liquid lakes of methane. Hard water ice covers much of the surface and at -176ºC, it’s like a rock.

It may be the most interesting place in our solar system.

I have started editing Book 2 of Trajectory this week. I’ve begun by fixing up the styles to conform to the Smashwords Style Guide. That’ll save me from the painful process I went through for Book 1 of having to “fix it in post”. There’s nothing quite like the gut wrenching feeling of having a document editor effect massive changes on your book with little control or insight into the process. I’ve caught (and updated) a couple of errors introduced by this process in Book 1.

Now about those updates: since I’ve made a couple of changes to the Amazon and Smashwords books since publishing, I’m curious if any of you have noticed updates being pushed to your Kindles, or emails that there’s a new version on Smashwords to download. This is another murky part of the process I have very little insight into and it would be good to know more about. Comments  appreciated. If you’ve bought the ePub on Smashwords, you may want to check back and see if there’s a new version waiting for you. I updated it earlier this week.

Wattpad‘s serving usefully as another editing pass. Seeing each chapter again when posting is a good opportunity for another scan. I figure I’ll do my three posts per week then update the books on Amazon and Smashwords with a new version incorporating any changes. It’s a little cumbersome, and a lot error prone. I crave continuous integration and single button publishing to multiple sources, but I apparently can’t have that. Smashwords wants to be that kind of service, and they are very nice people, but Amazon prevents them from publishing books under a certain threshold. I’ll write more about the tools in a later post, this is just a first taste. It is woefully more complicated than I wish it were.

Now for a bit of pleading. If you’ve read Book 1, please leave an honest review for me. I know Amazon’s picky about who they let in, and will bin reviews from friends and family, but every little bit helps. I’m curious about how they determine this. Are they scanning friends and followers on social media? That seems likely as they have all of my connections in my author profile. If you haven’t read it yet, Amazon’s put it on sale this week for the holidays so now’s a good time to buy.

Ok, enough of that. Listen to Radar Echoes on Titan.

Fusible Metal Hydrogen

Iceberg off the coast of Cape Spear

Hey. How’s your weekend? Mine’s alright, thanks.

The other day, Charles Stross wrote a screed about The Things One Must Not Do in science fiction in order to maintain his suspension of disbelief. These things are pretty much a laundry list of Things I used in Trajectory Book 1. The coincidence made me chuckle while I sipped my very dry Hendrick’s martini.

This is as good an excuse as any to start a series about the Science and Tech of Trajectory and something I wanted to write anyway. I had good reasons for the technologies and events that occur in Book 1 and Books 2+, which I assure you, I am starting to edit this week. If you have something in particular you have questions about, drop a note in the comments.

Fusion has been one of those technologies that has been 20 years in the future for the past 80 years or so, but turns out to be harder than it looks. We might just be on the verge of an actual fusion power breakthrough here on Earth if Germany’s WX7 Stellarator passes its initial burn-in test. I wish them luck, because oh-my-god-would-you-look-at-that-glorious-machine! Getting over that magical hump that turns fusion into a positive source of energy has stymied the best minds of the planet for generations. Even if the WX7 runs or ITER makes a breakthrough, it’s going to be fifty years or more before we see a design implemented that can give us the boundless clean energy these things have promised, so we’re not going to be driving cars with Mister Fusion pods on the back anytime soon.

A Fusion Rocket, is roughly similar in design and use to a tokamak reactor, though hopefully a lot more compact. The engines in Trajectory use a spherical containment core covered in magnets arrayed in a ring. This magnetic force contains and focuses a ring of plasma which is used to start the fusion of heavy hydrogen (deuterium/tritium) in the center. This in turn produces more plasma in the form of stripped protons and neutrons which further drive the reaction, which pushes against the magnetic field, and can be pulled out through an exhaust mechanism at great velocity, producing thrust.

A lot of it.

I doodled some maths to get a feel for the numbers involved and to convince myself that this even made the remotest sense. In order to produce the kind of energy needed to propel a 100 tonne rocket to 1G of acceleration, you need something ridiculous like 10MN of continuous force – essentially a small hydrogen bomb going off all the time. Fortunately, Nuclear reactions produce the biggest forces in nature and scale up really well provided you can contain them. The reactors in Trajectory can produce terajoules of power, redirecting some of the hot plasma back into a generator for ship power, the remaining ejecta can be focused and directed for the necessary thrust. Easy peasey, lemon squeezy.

One of the side-effects of this was I had to slow everything down in the books. Most of the ships in Trajectory burn around 0.1-0.4 G for bursts of 4-6 hours max. Somewhere just under Mars Standard Gravity is ideal. Turns out if you’re accelerating at 2G for a day, you are leaving the solar system, my friend. That amount of acceleration really adds up over time and you get some truly big numbers. These acceleration profiles are what you want for gentle burns to and from the asteroid belt to Mars in a 1 month, round trip. This also has the nice property of only requiring on the order of 1MN of force to propel the ships.

But, don’t take my word for it. This is essentially the design of a fusion rocket system proposed by NASA’s Glenn Research facility in this paper released in 2003 (PDF). It’s described in considerable detail starting around Page 6.

Which brings us to fuel.

Each ship is fitted with two gigantic container pods on the sides. They contain 5 tonnes of heavy hydrogen fuel. Around 10 times that amount is required in regular old hydrogen-1 superheated to plasma to produce the fusion reaction. Another 5 tonnes of hydrogen+oxygen make up the rest of the space in the form of water. Each person on a 2-4 person ship needs approximately 4 litres of water per day x 30 days for the round trip, plus a little extra just in case. Plus they need oxygen to breathe and water’s a convenient container for that, easily separable from the bonded hydrogen through electrolysis. The extra Hydrogen+Oxygen can be used to drive the ship’s Reaction Control Thrusters needed for maneuvers.

The biggest problem with this whole shebang is the fuel production. Deuterium is a trace element found throughout the universe wherever hydrogen is found, which is everywhere. Unfortunately, like Hydrogen, Deuterium binds with just about everything, so it gets locked up with other Hydrogen atoms or Oxygen forming heavy water. There’s a chemical process you can use to extract it, but at roughly 150-160 atoms per million molecules of water (on Earth), you have to process a proverbial shit-ton of it to get anywhere near the necessary quantities. Tritium, a hydrogen atom with 3 neutrons is rarer-still but fuses really well. Great stuff if you can get it. If you really wanted to get a lot of heavy hydrogen, and didn’t have Earth’s oceans to back you up, you’d probably want to go to Jupiter and scoop it out of the atmosphere.

For now, I’m just treating the “fuel problem” as something that has been dealt with but doesn’t require scooping gas out of Jupiter. Don’t worry about it. It’s not part of the story yet. I also don’t go into this much detail about the hardware in the books either because oh boy, that is really not what I’m looking for when I sit down to read a piece of fiction. I just wanted to describe some of the work that went into researching it.

There are some great Wikipedia pages giving an overview of nuclear propulsion. There are some great links in the further readings section in each of these pages. Also recommended is George Dyson’s Project Orion which documents the declassified nuclear fission rocket project from the fifties and is really fascinating stuff, if you’re into that kind of thing.


Comms Chatter

View from Earth Orbit, image via ESA, Rosetta/Philae Project

— Philae Lander (@Philae2014) December 2, 2015

I’d like to thank everyone who sent feedback, tweeted about and downloaded my book yesterday. I think by most accounts it was a pretty successful first day for a new book from an unknown author, so I’m very grateful for all the stars and hearts. Thank you. In case you missed it and have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s the launch post.

For the curious, I sold about 60 copies on Amazon yesterday from the US, Canada and the UK. For those who couldn’t find it in their region from the link, there should be a box on the right of the page with a link to your region. On Wattpad, my first chapter had over 50 reads on its first day, which is not too shabby for someone with no followers and no previous experience on that platform. Fun! I’ll have a new chapter up about the time I post this.

A friend posted a link to /r/scifi last night and that drove a few hundred people through here. Last night, I had nearly 1000 impressions on my blog and several hundred click-throughs to my Amazon book page. Several people were holding out for the epub version, so rest-assured, I’ll be setting that up very soon.

Now my main goal is figuring out my communications strategy. I think all of my primary messaging is going to continue through this blog. It’s easy and I get all the metrics that way. I may use my tumblr for secondary postings, random internet finds and animated gif reblogs – basically the same as I do now. It’s a handy backup with a convenient interface, but I get no data from it so it’s less useful.

I’m not ruling out doing some actual marketing at some point in the future, but right now I’m keeping it 100% grass roots and word-of-mouth, just to see how far it can go. If you’re a reader and like what you’ve read, reviews, stars and votes will really help me out, especially in these early stages. Referrals, recommendations and reblogs/tweets are hugely important. Also, since Christmas is coming up, if you know a reader of science fiction, preloading this on a Kindle makes a great gift. #justsayin! (santa.gif)


Trajectory Book Launch

Greetings. Happy December. I hope you all had a delightful Cyber Weekend.

I am excited/thrilled/terrified to be launching my new book, Trajectory Book 1 for Amazon Kindle today. For those on epub, I have a plan for those to follow. Drop me a note or watch this space for updates about releases. If you want to try it out before you buy, I’m serializing the whole thing on Wattpad in what is sure to be an exciting adventure.

UPDATE! ePub version is on Smashwords:

No paper, though. Save trees!

But gee, Rob, I didn’t know you were a writer?

It’s true, but you know, I’ve always wanted to try writing a book-length novel. Last year when NaNoWriMo rolled around I figured, sure, I’ll give it a shot. I can write 50,000 words in a month. As the story started to evolve and the month ended, I was around 60k and had a map for three full-length books in my head. So I kept going. Fifty thousand words, it turns out, isn’t really a book-sized book. It is a small number.

The series takes place in and around Mars and the near Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt. It tells the story of the Martian Colony New Providence, a sub-surface city built under the shadow of Ascraeus Mons, inside a long-dead lava tube hollowed out of the rock by the robotic constructors a century ago. The orbital station Lighthouse, and its companion sensor platform Watchtower, monitor the crews of a tiny fleet of antique mining ships that make their way back and forth to the belt for materials. The colony has survived, cut-off from Earth, for five generations after an unexplained disaster obliterated the home world.

In this first book we follow the crews of the inbound space ships heading home from their mining operations. A bright student from the university’s space program discovers something unexpected in the asteroid belt. She and her friends make an effort to get the attention of the Station Commander to warn them that something strange is going on out there, so they can warn their ships – their families.

And then stuff happens… I don’t want to give too much away here. You’ll have to read it.

After this, my hope is to get Book 2 edited for release in three months. Now that I’ve got a more solid process, I think that’s reasonable. Who would have thought that editing was much harder than churning out raw material? Figures. It’s the least fun part and I have a new respect for people who do this well.

Fortunately, I’ve got time. I’ll be pushing chapters to Wattpad 3 days a week starting now. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays will be New Chapter Days for the next 14 weeks. That should be enough time to get the next book ready, right?

During all that, I expect to have a bit more to say about the publishing process, complaining about the tools and describing what a pain in the arse editing is. If that kind of behind-the-scenes grumbling sounds like a good time, be sure to check back and keep an eye on my twitter feed.

The blurb:

Four mining ships are making the slow return to Mars from operations in the asteroid belt. Back on the planet, a group of students discover a mysterious object in space in an impossible orbit. The crew of the Lighthouse space station are shocked by a devastating accident that throws their routine into chaos as they strive to get their ships safely home.

Cut off from Earth, the sub-surface Martian Colony of New Providence suddenly finds itself in peril from something hostile and unknown. Is it alien? Is it an AI from Old Earth? After five generations enduring the harsh conditions on Mars, will the 50,000 citizens of New Providence survive this new and terrifying threat?

Trajectory Book 1 available in all markets. English. 65000 words, 255 pages.

Sub-surface broadcast


I thought I’d come up to periscope depth to drop a few words about what I’ve been up to. WordPress is a tricky vehicle to publish with and it usually devolves into extended configuration and Linux spelunking but I think I’m through the worst of it. If I can just ignore that blinking terminal window…

Anyway, I’ve been pretty much off Twitter the past couple of weeks, only dropping in to retweet a funny animal picture or cryptic sigil. It’s a funny thing, Twitter. Everybody’s so wrapped up in their little moments while there are big things happening in the world at large all around them. The juxtaposition of tech foibles, social injustices, untappd posts and the terribleness in Paris were too much for my feeble mind to cope with, so I shut it all down. This morning’s the first time I had Twitter open on my desktop machine in a week or two. Didn’t really miss it, though I’ll keep it around for DMs and the occasional drive-by.


Camera System: Check.

Last weekend I was at the Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre attending ground school for UAV pilots. In the eyes of Transport Canada, I am a certified airman. Industry Canada has licensed me to operate an aviation radio. I ordered my Big Book of Canada Aerodromes and received it in the mail on Friday with giddy enthusiasm. Yes, it’s an actual book with paper in it. No, I don’t know why it’s not on the internet. Because reasons, I’m sure. Anyway, it was a lot of fun and the pilots at the WWFC were all wonderful people and full of stories from the world of aviation they backed up with deep knowledge. If you would like to go legit, I recommend their program whole-heartedly. Or you could just keep flying your drone illegally which is what basically every hobbyist is doing in the lower Canadian latitudes in controlled and restricted airspaces. Which is everywhere.

There will probably be a come-uppance. You’ve been warned.

And now a short teaser about a project I’ve been working on for lo this past year. That’s it, really. That’s the whole teaser. It’s really close to being done in a form that I’m almost happy with and I hope to have an exciting announcement later this week. Maybe Wednesday if the stars all line up.

no it’s not an app. or a startup. geez.

Dakota, 2002-2015

We lost our beloved greyhound Dakota last week. Born Farshur from a long line of pedigreed racers dating back to the early 1800s, she came to us via the good people at MGAP in Moncton in 2009. After suffering problems with her teeth and a long struggle with arthritis, she finally succumbed to chronic kidney failure. She was a fighter to the end. I miss her a lot.

she can see for miles

UAV Preflight Checklist

This morning I came across this list for new pilots in my feeds and thought it’d be useful to share my own pre-flight checklist. Before any flight, I always run through a quick checklist to make sure I’m not breaking any rules and that my quadcopter’s in good working shape. It’s short, takes a few minutes and potentially saves me from a costly mistake.

Portable fly #followmode #drones

  1. Check the weather. I don’t just rely on The Weather Network / Channel, I find the closest airport and pull a METAR (Meteorological Terminal Aviation Routine Weather Report) feed using one of several web services. E.g., These are auto-generated every hour or half-hour and provide localized reports. What to watch for, pay particular attention to the windspeed information. Anything higher than 15knots and we’re grounded. No flying! METAR reports use knots or nautical miles per hour, lots of funny units in aviation, but 15kts == 28km/h. Other issues: visibility, fog, cloud or rain can ground you. One pro-tip that can get you flying happens to apply to both photography and hot-air ballooning: the best conditions are always early in the morning around sunrise and later in the evening around sunset. Better light too. I’ll record the METAR report in my log book.
  2. Location > 9km from an airport? This is key. In Canada and the US, there’s a 5 mile / 9km exclusion zone around any airports. I take this one pretty seriously as I don’t want to be the jackass that gets civilian quadcopters grounded for everyone because of a near-miss by an airplane. Check Flightaware in your location to get a local aeronautical map (E.g., Other considerations for location: are you on private property? If so, do you have permission? Trees? Powerlines? I do a good walk-around on a site before I take off to get a feel for any obstacles I need to be aware of. I learned this the hard way when I had a hard crash doing some free flying and not making note of a row of small trees once. There is no grosser feeling than watching your quad collide with a tree at over 50kph and then crashing into concrete.
  3. Batteries. Before a flight, I’ll charge the battery packs for my quad, my transmitter’s battery pack and my phone which I use for telemetry and auto-pilot programming. Don’t forget the camera! I fly with a GoPro Hero3+ Black and it chews through batteries like nobody’s business. If I’m flying with more than 2 packs on my ‘copter, I need at least 2 charged batteries for the GoPro. Don’t forget memory cards either.
  4. Tools. I keep a go bag with my controller, and a bunch of tools to do field repairs and tune-ups. Hex keys for my gimbal and drone’s body screws, wrenches for the props. Batteries for my camera and quad, backups for my transmitter and memory cards. I usually bring a multi-tool as well. You’ll need these for…
  5. Props, legs and arms. Give everything a little wiggle. Most of the screws on my copter for the arms and motors are all held in place with lock-tite, and the props are self-tightening. In most cases, this is formality, but always check your machine before a flight.
  6. People. Are there any people around? Dogs or other animals? Be aware of them. Flying over crowds is a strict no-no and in Canada, you have to keep a 100 ft. minimum distance from any groups of people. Dogs and other animals can become excited or scared by loud electric motors. I recently flew at a wedding where there were horses and they just didn’t like the thing. I had to keep a long distance to keep from spooking the horse and in the end, didn’t really get the shots we wanted. Still better than having a freaked-out work-horse running rampant through a crowd of people.
  7. Power. GoPro on, correct mode? Start recording. Battery in, check the flight controller’s tones. Wait for gimbal calibration and GPS connection.
  8. Transmitter and Telemetry. Check controller sticks and switch positions. Turn it on. Check gimbal tilt response to verify connection. Turn on telemetry radio and start ground station app (I use Tower on my Android phone).
  9. If I have a pre-programmed auto flight plan, I’ll load it on my phone and send it to the drone. At a minimum, I’ll verify the home location when I arm my drone is accurate.
  10. Lift off and hover check. Before any mission, always do a brief take-off and loiter test to make sure we’re holding position and everything’s flying correctly.

And we’re good to go! In flight, I keep a strict 150m altitude limit and a close eye on my battery voltage. My ground control software, Tower has a nice feature where it’ll give audio read-outs of altitude and voltage levels every 10 seconds or so I don’t have to take my eyes off the sky. After a flight, I record everything in my log book.

This sounds complicated, but after you do it enough times, it becomes routine. Stick to the list and you can’t go wrong.

Happy flying!