“Stxeamtown” by John Reinhard Dizon is an Uproarious Steampunk Classic

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“Stxeamtown” by John Reinhold Dizon operates on so many levels that it can only be compared to such works as “The Wizard of Oz,” “Alice in Wonderland” and Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” To say it is brilliant is totally inadequate. Readers of all ages can enjoy its genius, though if you choose to read it as a bedtime story your young children may not understand why you laugh uproariously from time to time.

This brilliant satire creates a vivid post-apocalyptic world in which the few survivors following the “Big Bang” form a variety of societies. This was my first experience with the “steampunk” genre and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed this unusual twist on a post-apocalyptic world. The teenage protagonist is Trip Nortel, short for Amitriptylene, his name credited to the custom of finding baby’s names in pre-Big Bang formulary volumes. Trip is an Abovegrounder, a subculture that lives on the rooftops unbeknownst to the Grounders below due to a perpetual cloud of water vapor that obscures visibility; steam is the primary power source, having been rediscovered following the Big Bang. Abovegrounders are held to strict rules, including the need to be obsequious toward tyrannical “young-uns” by meeting their every demand. Those who don’t follow the rules are “crossed-out,” i.e. given a lobotomy, and sent to the ground below. Those who don’t make trouble don’t fare much better since upon reaching the ripe old age of 30 they, too, are banished. The rules are enforced by Big Boys who maintain limited contact with Traders below.

Trip falls in love with Lyrica, another Abovegrounder who lives on a different rooftop. She’s not only beautiful but wears stitched clothing rather than the wraps worn by most of the others. The two exchange Morse code messages in which they express their affection and finally the day comes that Trip finds his way to Lyrica and the pair makes a precarious escape to the ground, some rooftop friends subsequently joining them.

Once amongst the Grounders, Trip immediately connects with influential people who advise, “He who moves the most paper is the one who goes farthest ahead.” He’s quickly dressed in stitched clothing like the others in styles reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’ world of fantasy. Eager to learn, he soon finds himself elevated to the upper echelons of society. The hero and his girl are instrumental in instituting numerous changes, including starting a school system to educate the Idiots, i.e. those “crossed-out” and cast from the rooftops, so they can reach their full potential. Things get more complicated as their Abovegrounder friends lament receiving unequal benefit from Trip’s influence and stir up trouble by associating with the Traders Guild and the Society of Black Beards who enjoy strong drink. The complications of the culture clash that follows are ultimately solved and of course everyone lives happily ever after.

While this tale is presented in a style similar to the best of fairy tales (which I assume is typical of steampunk), more sophisticated readers will be greatly entertained by recognizing the allegorical themes running throughout the surprisingly intricate plot, colorful characters and their societal predicaments. Dizon’s dry wit is only matched by his genius in creating this must-read allegorical tale that bears a striking resemblance to the world in which we live. If I could give it more than 5 stars, I would.

Don’t miss it! You can pick up your copy on Amazon here.

The Astrolabe: Ancient Analog Computer with 1K Apps

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Figure 1. Planispherical astrolabe. Marocco, 16th century. Engraved brass. On display at Paris naval Museum.

Whether you’re an astronomer, astrologer or steampunk fan, you’re bound to fall in love with this ancient analog computer.  Even better, you can make one for yourself by downloading the directions from the Resources section below.

The astrolabe is an ingenius device used for nearly two thousands years, from the time of Hipparchus (c. 190 – 120 BCE) until the turn of the 17th century.  It’s typically a disc constructed from wood or brass, about 10 – 20 centimeters in diameter, and a few millimeters thick.  In 1391, medieval writer and poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote a treatise on the subject for his son, describing how to build one as well as its use.  Astrolabes had over a thousand uses, including timekeeping, navigation, surveying, solving equations, and so forth.  Mastering them all required an entire university level course.

While at first appearance an astrolabe is intimidating, breaking it down into its components, combined with the information contained on each one, brings a strong sense of familiarity if you’re an astronomer.  Appreciation for the knowledge ancient civilizations acquired of the stars and their relationship to the Earth quickly follows at the thought of designing, much less crafting, such a clever precision instrument.

The main components of a planetspheric astrolabe are the mater, climate plate or tympan, and rete, which all function together, demonstrating how Earth’s place in the cosmos provides the ultimate reference frame.

Astrolabe (Front)

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Figure 2. Astrolabe Front: The Mater

The front of the astrolabe, called the mater, (which means mother and is sometimes referred to as such) looks mind-boggling, until you break it down into its components.

Starting from the outside, you see most of the letters of the alphabet around the circumference.  These represent the twenty-four hours of the day, more specifically, the equal hours system, which is what we use now, i.e. each hour is 60 minutes long.  However, at one time, there were twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of darkness.  Needless to say, unless you live on the equator, the days and nights are NOT of equal length except at the equinoxes.  Thus, the unequal hours system meant that the duration of hours were adjusted, according to the time of year.  The astrolabe thus accounted for them as well, as shown by the designated lines in Figure 1.

The numbers just inside the letters represent degrees from the horizon, where’s it’s zero, to a maximum of 90 degrees at the zenith (Noon) or nadir (Midnight).

The horizon is represented by an oblique line. Unlike most of the maps we see these days, East is on the left, West on the right, North at the top, South at the bottom. ( If you’re familiar with astrology, you should not be surprised that these are the same as a horoscope with the ascendant on the left, Midheaven (Noon) on the top, descendant on the right and Imum Coeli (Midnight) on the bottom.) Just below the horizon is a dotted one, which is somewhat difficult to see at this scale, but represents the period known as Civil Twilight, or the time in the morning or evening when the Sun isn’t above the horzon, yet there’s a certain level of light.

So, to recap, so far we have 24 hours around the outer edge, perpendicular lines representing the cardinal directions, and an arc indicating the horizon.

Due North, represented so conveniently by Polaris, a.k.a. the North Star, is located dead-center.  Its position in the sky varies with latitude, indicated numerically on the vertical line extending upward from the climate’s center.

The climate, sometimes referred to as the tympan, comprises the section that looks like a spider web with a center just North of Polaris, which represents the zenith, or portion of sky directly overhead. The curved lines mark azimuth readings, while the concentric rings are lines of constant altitude or almucantars. These vary with latitude, like the view of the night sky, so astrolabes used in multiple locations required suitable climate plates, which fit into this area. Note the degree markings along the edge of the azimuth lines, which you’ll use later.

A rotating ruler with degree markings which represent declination, the altitude above the celestial equator, is attached to the center of the mater. It’s also used as a convenient pointer in the process of telling time, as explained further below. [NOTE:–The concentric rings, which are unlabeled in Figure 1, are duplicated on the rete and therefore explained in that section as well as defined in Figure 3.]

Astrolabe (Back)

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Figure 3. Astrolabe Back: Calendars and Shadow Scale.

The back of the astrolabe is equally daunting at first sight, until you break it down. However, it’s this complexity that allowed this ancient instrument to provide so many functions. For example, the box labeled “Shadow Scale for surveyors” gives a hint of one of its many uses.

The top, called the throne, was used to hang the instrument or hold it in the proper position.

The outer ring has degrees from the horizon, like the front, with zero on the horizontal axis and 90 degrees on the vertical. Just inside the degrees are another ring of numbers, this time corresponding to the degrees of the tropical zodiac signs named in the next ring.

There are two calendars represented, one from Geoffrey Chaucer’s time (1394), which is included since Chaucer wrote a popular treatise on the astrolabe for his son, a copy of which you can find online. The modern calendar, closer in toward the center, is based on 1974, but this is close enough since it takes centuries for precession to change enough to worry about.

Near the center, several Saints’ Days are noted.

Thus, there’s a lot of information, but most of it’s familiar. Another pointing device called the alidade is placed on the back, which is similar to the ruler on the front except it has either pinholes or notches used to sight in the altitude of the chosen star or landmark, if being used for surveying.

The Rete

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Figure 4. The Rete

The rete comprises the main component of a planisphere, i.e., a stereographic projection of the celestial sphere on a flat surface. Polaris is at the center with several constellations included with the brighter stars emphasized.

The outer ring represents the Tropic of Capricorn, the one in the center, the Equator, and the innermost ring, the Tropic of Cancer. The hours of Right Ascension are shown along the circumference as well.

A diagram of the annual path of the Sun, a.k.a. ecliptic, is offset from the center and includes markings for the signs and degrees of the tropical zodiac.

For a homemade astrolabe, the rete is printed on a sheet of clear transparency which allows the stars to be superimposed on the mater. Obviously, in ancient times, that wasn’t available, their solution not only innovative but artistic as well. The rete, like most of the other components, would be constructed of brass, but numerous areas cut away so you could see the mater underneath.

Most astrolabes were carefully crafted precision instruments which were much larger than the homemade version, allowing for a more accurate position determination, but nonetheless, a relatively accurate reading is possible with a homemade version, a source of which is included in the resource listing.  The ancient Turkish astrolabe in Figure 5 shows the mater and rete on the front and calendar and alidade on the back.  Note the incredible artistry and workmanship of this 17th Century device.

Planetary Position

To determine the position of a planet, use its relationship to the Fixed Stars on the rete.  By rotating the rete so that the position of the planet is on the horizontal axis, i.e., zero degrees, then following that line to the tropical zodiac on the ecliptic circle, to determine its position. The ruler provides its declination.

Telling Time

This process is relatively simple and shows the genius of using Earth’s position combined with celestial alignments to determine the time of day.

  1. First, using the back of the astrolabe, find the current date and note the corresponding zodiacal degree of the Sun.
  2. Next, select a specific star visible in the night sky that’s represented on the rete.
  3. Using the back of the astrolabe, align the device’s horizon line with the visible horizon and use the alidade to measure its altitude. (Warning: This could be the most
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    Figure 6. Sighting in the altitude with the alidade.

    difficult part of the process. Furthermore, in many cases the visible horizon is not the actual horizon due to elevation, buildings, trees, mountains, and so forth. If nothing else, consider that the Moon appears to be, on average, a half-degree across, or approximately the width of your thumb, which you can use to approximate the altitude.)

  4. Identify the star on the front of the astrolabe (rete).
  5. Move the rete so the altitude you measured of the star matches the azimuth scale behind it.
  6. Align the rule on the rete with the zodiacal position for the Sun for that day.
  7. The rule will point to the time represented on the outer rim of the mater, indicated by a letter. (Don’t forget to adjust for Daylight Savings Time.)

If you know any two of the variables (date, time, rete star position), you can always solve for the third.

Conclusion

The innovative talents of the ancients who invented this device provide a new appreciation for their knowledge of the heavens, Earth, and their celestial relationships.

Even more astounding, and perhaps even a progenitor or technological cousin of the astrolabe, is the antikythera mechanism, an invention attributed by researchers to Aristotle.  It included the positions of the Moon and planets using a complex system of gears and pins that compensated for their elliptical orbits, plus had the ability to predict when eclipses would occur.  Researchers believe it was lost when General Marcellus sacked Syracuse, then surfaced later via the Byzantine Empire (500 A.D.) where it was most likely the inspiration for Persian astrologers to reinvent the astrolabe, then bring it to Spain in the 13th century via the Moors.

During the 14th century Renaissance, sophisticated gear trains came back to drive astronomical clocks found in various European cities such as Strasbourg, France and Prague, Czech Republic.  The sophistication of these devices demonstrates the knowledge of celestial mechanics and engineering possessed by past civilizations, tangible testimonials to man’s ingenuity, long before such calculations became the domain of application programmers creating smartphone apps.

Resources

Directions for Making an Astrolabe

https://in-the-sky.org/astrolabe/index.php

Some Places to Buy Astrolabes

http://leelehman.com/wp/index.php/2015/11/02/brass-astronomical-and-astrological-instruments/

http://www.chronos-manufaktur.de/

Video on How to Use an Astrolabe

http://www.ted.com/talks/tom_wujec_demos_the_13th_century_astrolabe

Additional Information

http://www.chronos-manufaktur.de/en/astrolabes_principle.htm (Includes the TED video plus additional resource information)

References

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astrolabe

“Building a Model Astrolabe” by Dominic Ford, Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 122, 1, 2012, https://in-the-sky.org/astrolabe/index.php

“Western Astrolabes” by Roderick and Marjorie Webster, Copyright 1998, Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum, 1300 South lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois 60605

Picture Credits

Figure 1: Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike License, By Rama – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7294462

Figures 2 – 4:  (c) Dominic Ford, 2013, https://in-the-sky.org/astrolabe/index.php

Figures 5a & b: Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike License, By Pom² – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4039477. Description: Astrolabe planisférique Mère et tympan : Turquie ottomane, 1098 H / 1686-1687 Araignée: maghreb, vers 1850 Laiton à décor gravé et incisé D. 10,2cm Paris, musée de l’Institut du monde arabe, AI 86-45 Legs Destombes

Figure 6: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Astrolabe

Copyright (c) 2016 by Marcha Fox, All Rights Reserved

 

Another Winner from the Queen of Adult Bedtime Stories

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I consider Regina Puckett the absolute queen of adult bedtime stories. But I better qualify that so you don’t get the wrong impression. When I say “adult” I don’t mean erotic or “R” rated, since the ones I’ve read are clean enough to read to a child. Rather, a child probably would not get the relationship and societal subtleties, though of course most of us who grew up with the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson never understood the underlying themes, either.

All that aside, I almost always read before I go to sleep and while I enjoy a wide variety of genres, including the pulse-pounding variety, there’s nothing better than one of Ms. Puckett’s after a stressful day when all you want to do is slip into a fantasy world prior to drifting off. (Clearly this might not apply to those she’s done in the horror genre which may not be so appropriate at that time.) So far the characters I’ve encountered are endearing and even though her stories tend to be relatively short, the people and plot are well-developed. There’s outstanding imagery and just enough detail to make the story come to life. Truly she’s a master storyteller, and I’m not an easy reader to please. It’s no surprise she’s won so many awards.

This particular steampunk tale as well as those in that genre I’ve read by other authors reminds me of hitting Earth’s reset button and taking us back to a simpler time with only mysterious remnants remaining of high technology. It’s a post-apocalyptic world where the few survivors are gradually rebuilding society. In this one, the main character, Liberty, travels extensively in her airship to different locales where she gathers goods to trade in other locations.

On the philosophical side, this is an interesting reminder that most merchandise and commodities (especially food) used to originate relatively close to home as opposed to coming from just about anywhere on the globe. In simpler times there was more accountability, similar to buying produce in a farmers’ market, as opposed to some of the questionable products from places like China found in modern grocery stores which I wouldn’t feed to a stray dog. Indeed, a few years back, products from that country were killing our dogs and cats, yet we persist in allowing these questionable consumables into our country. As one of her characters savored an apple I pondered the importance of everyday products we take for granted that could disappear given some sort of global disaster. Maybe it’s just me, but I found plenty to think about in this relatively simple story, giving it considerably more thought-provoking depth than you might expect.

The process of rebuilding society, one person at a time, is typically explored in this genre. Human nature being what it is, individuals would react differently to global disaster. The opportunity to take advantage of and exploit others is always there for those who are selfish while those who are more highly evolved would be concerned with the human species as a whole. Under such circumstances, society will rebuild sooner or later and most likely be entirely foreign to what we know. It’s nice to think that mankind would learn his lesson and try to get along with his fellow species better than we see today, but there are no guarantees. There’s just such a mix in Liberty’s world and she’s suspicious of everyone, which helps her survive. As you would expect, she has a rather jaded view of love as well which begins to change when she’s given a small robot named Boy. Before she knows it she’s developing a warm relationship with this wise and philosophical little being from which the tale’s title derives. Soon after that another trader like herself comes along as well and Liberty learns more about friendship and trust.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story and definitely look forward to reading the next one in the series which promises to provide more information about Liberty’s background. If you’re looking for a mildly suspenseful tale saturated with charm and character to say nothing of a few philosophical considerations, I highly recommend this one.  You can pick up your copy on Amazon here.

Dizon’s “Stxeamtown” Elevates Steampunk to its Best Satirical Potential

“Stxeamtown” by John Reinhold Dizon was my introduction to the “steampunk” genre which I didn’t even realize existed at the time.  I saw it as a hilarious satire, which apparently is the intent of the genre generally.  This particular book operates on so many levels that it can only be compared to such works as “The Wizard of Oz,” “Alice in Wonderland” and Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”  Readers of all ages can enjoy its genius though if you choose to read it as a bedtime story your young children may not understand why you laugh uproariously from time to time.

This brilliant satire creates a vivid post-apocalyptic world in which the few survivors following the “Big Bang” form a variety of societies.  The teenage protagonist is Trip Nortel, short for Amitriptylene, his name credited to the custom of finding baby’s names in pre-Big Bang formulary volumes.  Trip is an Abovegrounder, a subculture that lives on the rooftops unbeknownst to the Grounders below due to a perpetual cloud of water vapor that obscures visibility; steam is the primary power source, having been rediscovered following the Big Bang.  Abovegrounders are held to strict rules, including the need to be obsequious toward tyrannical “young-uns” by meeting their every demand.  Those who don’t follow the rules are “crossed-out,” i.e. given a lobotomy, and sent to the ground below.  Those who don’t make trouble don’t fare much better since upon reaching the ripe old age of 30 they, too, are banished.  The rules are enforced by Big Boys who maintain limited contact with Traders below.

Trip falls in love with Lyrica, another Abovegrounder who lives on a different rooftop.  She’s not only beautiful but wears stitched clothing rather than the wraps worn by most of the others. The two exchange Morse code messages in which they express their affection and finally the day comes that Trip finds his way to Lyrica and the pair makes a precarious escape to the ground, some rooftop friends subsequently joining them.

Once amongst the Grounders, Trip immediately connects with influential people who advise, “He who moves the most paper is the one who goes farthest ahead.”  He’s quickly dressed in stitched clothing like the others in styles reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’ world of fantasy.  Eager to learn, he soon finds himself elevated to the upper echelons of society.  The hero and his girl are instrumental in instituting numerous changes, including starting a school system to educate the Idiots, i.e. those “crossed-out” and cast from the rooftops, so they can reach their full potential.  Things get more complicated as their Abovegrounder friends lament receiving unequal benefit from Trip’s influence and stir up trouble by associating with the Traders Guild and the Society of Black Beards who enjoy strong drink. The complications of the culture clash that follows are ultimately solved and of course everyone lives happily ever after.

While this tale is presented in a style similar to the best of fairy tales, more sophisticated readers will be greatly entertained by recognizing the allegorical themes running throughout the surprisingly intricate plot, colorful characters and their societal predicaments.  Dizon’s dry wit is only matched by his genius in creating this must-read allegorical tale that bears a striking resemblance to the world in which we live.