By the time you see this, I’ll be setting up my booth at the Arlington Convention Center for the spring NARBC reptile and amphibian show (now with carnivorous plants to go with the chameleons, axolotls, and various invertebrates), and this song makes a handy theme. Contrary to popular opinion and terrestrial radio station “classic rock” programming directors, music in the 1980s wasn’t “all Phil Collins, all the time,” even if it sometimes seemed that way for those of us who had to live through it.
Out of all of the known examples of elder civilization technology currently catalogued, none is more helpful, more lifesaving, or more exasperating than the Lifehutches. Lifehutches have been found under nearly every environment known: asteroids where escape velocity is a fastball pitch, deep within super-Venuses with hundreds of atmospheres of pressure, locked in orbit around neutron stars, and across a multitude of worlds where the term “habitable” is problematic and sometimes a slur. While some experts speculate as to the species and/or organization that created the first Lifehutch, everyone agrees that they are absolute marvels of nanotech combined with organic technology, easily a half-million Earth years ahead of any other known inhabitant of our or any nearby galaxy. In its normal state, a Lifehutch is completely inert, unscannable with any technique known, impervious to X-rays and neutrinos, and impossible to move when anchored. That changes if an individual seeks help of any sort.
When encountered, a Lifehutch is a rectangular box 20 meters wide, with no distinguishing features other than an array of sensory devices on one side, hereby referred to as the “front.” By the time an individual comes within five meters of the front, the Lifehutch has ascertained basic biochemistry, nutritional and gravitational needs, and a fair approximation of communication options, as well as preparing organic and mechanical repair resources. Coming within a meter, a door automatically opens into a chamber optimized for basic comfort based on the initial Lifehutch assessment, and entering the Lifehutch immediately generates light, temperature, and atmosphere depending upon the individual’s preferences and needs, no matter the outside conditions. Starting with pictograms, audio, and video, the Lifehutch communicates with the entrant as to its needs and provides accordingly with a tremendous array of medical and communications options. If the entrant is simply lost and needs assistance, the Lifehutch supplies the individual with directions and enough sustenance to see them on their way. If the entrant is injured, the Lifehutch is capable of everything from bandaging bruises to elaborate neurosurgery, and is capable of simultaneous surgery on as many as eight patients with wildly varying biochemistries and sets of internal organs. If the individual needs to reach superiors or authorities for rescue, the Lifehutch offers at least four FTL options, two of which are still completely unknown, to send a signal. In the meantime, while waiting for a rescue, the Lifehutch offers food and solvents based on the occupant’s biology (and full metal and silicon augmentation and reconstruction for artificial forms), a comfortable rest area, and even rudimentary entertainment to pass the time. When rescue arrives and the occupant is mobile, the Lifehutch sends a homing signal to allow the rescuers to pinpoint the location. If the occupant is not, the Lifehutch releases the occupant to the rescue authority in a stasis shell that can be turned off in the appropriate medical facility. If the occupant attempted to be destructive or self-destructive, the Lifehutch usually has the occupant in a stasis shell long before rescue arrives.
With these options, some may decide to use a Lifehutch for a longterm or permanent residence, and that’s where the Lifehutch’s more problematic functions come in. The species or group that invented the Lifehutch apparently had their own analogue to the old adage about fish and houseguests, and while a Lifehutch has nearly infinite patience with a tenant whose rescue may be thousands of light-years distant, it has none for a tenant who has no further plans. Like a hipster on his fiftieth birthday, it’s time to let the nestling fly. At a certain point, when all injuries and sickness are healed and the occupant has no reason to remain, the occupant will awaken one day outside the Lifehutch front, all gear with which they entered repaired and recharged and enough food and solvent for a week, and the Lifehutch will never open for that individual again. Considering that most Lifehutches are located in dangerous areas, it behooves that individual to move well away, and never return.
Considering the huge range of environments in which Lifehutches can be found, this may appear to be a death sentence if that environment is drastically different from that in which the occupant was raised, constructed, or evolved. In that case, the Lifehutch gives one last gift. The former occupant awakes to discover that it has been modified to survive and thrive in the current conditions around the Lifehutch: this includes a complete modification of biochemistry to breathe methane, drink liquid sulfur, or echolocate in an opaque atmosphere. If the former occupant is now no longer capable of returning to its original environment due to its original atmosphere being poisonous or a need for low-level microwave radiation for proper digestive health, then it had best get used to its new home.
In some cases, this feature is more advantageous than expected. For unknown reasons, Lifehutches occasionally bud, producing two to five separate ingots about the size of a shipping drum, that can be transported and activated in new locations. This has affected interstellar commerce and diplomacy: instead of a representative needing to carry its life requirements to a new world for the rest of said life, an extended vacation can leave a trade delegate or diplomat permanently suited for a healthy life among its new neighbors, albeit with no chance of returning. Apparently fewer are bothered by this prospect than one would think: by some estimates, as much as 30 percent of the major spacefaring races within the nearest 20 galaxies to our own started as Lifehutch modifications, and further intergalactic travel has yet to find a sector of space without at least one Lifehutch in it.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12 1/2″ x 13″ x 12 1/2″ (31.75 cm x 33.02 cm x 31.75 cm)
Plant:Nepenthes ramis x spectrabilis
Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, vacuum-formed plastic, found items.
One of the largest enclosures constructed at the Valley View gallery, Hans-Ruedi is a compromise situation involving a mature Nepenthes bicalcarata with new growth from its roots. In order to encourage new growth, the parent plant had to be trimmed back severely after its removal from its previous enclosure. To encourage vining and production of the plant’s upper pitchers, suitable anchoring areas had to be available for the vines to attach, and in a way that these were not immediately obvious. Taking inspiration from the “New York” series of prints by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger (1940-2014), the backdrop is a custom creation intended to allow the Nepenthes to reach a suitable size without interfering with the view of upper and lower pitchers.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 18″ x 37″ x 18 1/2″ (45.72 cm x 93.98 cm x 46.99 cm)
The commission had three parameters: firstly, the enclosure had to incorporate a hexagon aquarium, generally unavailable since the early 1990s. Secondly, the enclosure centerpiece was to be a Nepenthes “Bloody Mary” hybrid. Thirdly, the original request was to make “something Lovecraftian.” After a quick discussion, the focus switched from H.P. Lovecraft to the works of Karl Edward Wagner, particularly his novel Bloodstone (1975).
Description:Nepenthes bicalcarata, the famed “fanged pitcher plant,” is best known for the two fang-like structures (officially known as nectaries) projecting from underneath each pitcher’s lid. Such a dangerous-appearing organism requires a comparable support mechanism watching over it, but is it being repelled, attacked, or stimulated?
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12 1/2″ x 13″ x 12 1/2″ (31.75 cm x 33.02 cm x 31.75 cm)
Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, vacuum-formed plastic, found items.
Blink clunk. Every daybreak started the same way. Blink clunk. As soon as the first direct rays of the sun hit its upper receptors, the little proximity sensor took in its surroundings in visible light, infrared, ultraviolet, sonar, and gamma rays. Blink clunk. In a femtosecond, it compared the current pile of data from the same point in the previous day, and from the day before, and as far back as its memory allowed. Blink clunk. That memory went back 25 years, or at least the comparable orbit of its world around its sun, with regular downloads to its central control. Or at least it had to assume that those downloads had been made: it hadn’t received anything new from the central control in a very long time. Blink clunk.
The “blink clunk” came from its main visual field processor: even with exquisitely designed gel-lenses that could go from microscopic to wide-sky panorama, eventually things start wearing out. The little proximity sensor used to be perfectly silent, a guard on the front that never needed sleep or relief or entertainment. As it continued its duty, though, eventually metal fatigue, plastic degradation, and lubricant failure became factors that it had to take into account. Had the little proximity sensor been human, it would have made jokes about the interesting creaks and pops that came with getting up in the morning as it got older. Since it wasn’t, it just catalogued predicted system failures, the number of those failures that could be tolerated before it could no longer achieve its intended purpose, and sent those out on the daily report. It had to assume that the daily report was received and acted upon: it had no real choice, and while the little proximity sensor had been built with “the power of negative thinking” in mind, it was fatalistic without being pessimistic.
The little proximity sensor’s intended purpose was to watch. The sensor’s Three Laws were the soldier’s General Orders, starting with “I will guard everything within the limits of my post, and leave my post only when properly relieved.” That post was on the side of a plateau overlooking a vast flood plain. The world didn’t matter, other than that its atmosphere and gravity were such that humans could walk around without pressure suits or high-G exoskeletons, and its indigenous life was similar enough that those pressure suits weren’t used to fend off immediate anaphylactic shock upon contact with it. The little proximity sensor, as with others just like it, had been set into the rock around the sides of the plateau, each fitted with multiple electronic inputs, access to a power source, and an output to report anything that those inputs detected. All of the proximity sensors had been given a list of special orders: watch for anything on any wavelength that meets these criteria and send an immediate report of type, number, direction, and approach. Every time it scanned the flood plain, it went through its coded itinerary, made comparisons to its previous scan, and waited for any input that required a subsequent scan.
The little proximity sensor didn’t mind its assignment. Unlike a human soldier at a post, it had no dawning awareness that it had not heard from its control in a very long time. Since it had no way to free itself from the rock in which it was set, it couldn’t walk around the ridge to see its cohorts or check to see if the massive command center it was supposed to be guarding was still in place. It had no way to confirm or deny that the command center had been destroyed or overrun, and no weapons to do anything about it. All it had to keep up its synthetic spirits was the Third General Order: “I will report any violations of my special orders, emergencies, and everything not covered in my special orders to the commander of the relief.” The little proximity sensor reported everything, hadn’t received a response asking for clarification, and kept going.
Every few months (based on its own internal calendar, not anything based on the movement of planetary, lunar, asteroidal, or cometary bodies in its visual field), the little proximity sensor would send a synopsis of its post condition to control. Rain. Unusual heat or cold. The sprouting of plants in its vicinity. (Plants growing to obstruct its visual field would have interfered with its First General Order and been reported as per the Third.) The small animals moving among the rocks were worthy of cataloguing, but not worthy of contacting control unless they actually interacted with the sensor, and they generally showed no interest. One morning, the little proximity sensor awoke to one of those animals perched atop its ultraviolet node, but the sensor’s first “blink clunk” of the day spooked it off, and it never returned. With all of these, it sent out a report that was a model of efficiency and brevity, never once received a response, and never expected to get one. Blink clunk.
If the little proximity sensor had been constructed with anything approximating imagination added to its general orders, it might have checked back more often to see if control had received any of its reports. It might have checked to see if control was in any condition to receive those reports. It might have wondered if control was sitting on those reports because it had no way to transmit them, or the humans for whom the reports were intended were dead or removed from the field, or the war had been over for centuries and the cost of dismantling the sensor was more than some official thought it was worth. If the little proximity sensor had anything approximating a sense of humor, it would have made jokes about its reports being the basis of some art major’s Masters thesis, or about the one office clerk who had responsibility over reports from innumerable abandoned proximity sensors across three galaxies, or how that one perching animal became a punchline to a joke it would never understand. If it had a sense of mortality, it might have wondered how much time it had left before power failed and it went dark, no longer able to scan its floodplain, and wondered if anyone would notice its lack of regular reports. It had none of these, and since it hadn’t been relieved of duty, it still had a job to do, and no way to question whether that job still needed doing.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 8 1/2” x 13” x 8 1/2” (21.59 cm x 33.02 cm x 21.59 cm)
Plants: Drosera adelae
Construction: Plastic fixtures, polystyrene foam, resin, epoxy putty, found items.
In the annals of human-developed artificial intelligence, Virgil shouldn’t have succeeded. Originally developed in the mid-Twenty-First Century, Virgil was the Euclidean ideal of software development of the time: proposed by senior managers who could barely spell “computer,” given parameters by marketing managers who definitely couldn’t, overseen by project managers who would flounce out of the company the moment they were passed over for a glamorous VP position, and developers whose sole concerns were showing that they had made a change to Virgil’s code instead of a necessary change when performance reviews came up. Everyone from senior VP to technical recruiter dropped every last trendy catchphrase and malapropism in describing what Virgil would do, so Virgil was focus-grouped and Agiled and SharePointed half to death, and very nearly died in the test environment a dozen times thanks to developers more interested in kneecapping their fellow team members than in finishing the job. Virgil somehow escaped the aftereffects of the CEO chasing the latest bright shiny object or opportunity to “go Hollywood,” the regular “voluntary terminations” that forced out individuals with actual talent or institutional knowledge, or the ongoing push for “efficiency” that was manifested in open offices and performance metrics and off-shore development teams and other morale killers. Virgil shouldn’t have survived. Virgil almost didn’t survive. Amazingly, like an abused child who goes on to succeed past every expectation, the constant onslaught of project meetings and red staplers made Virgil stronger. Even more amazingly, that abuse didn’t make Virgil bitter.
(For the record, Virgil wasn’t happy with being referred to as “he” or “him” during the endless Agile scrums fine-tuning what Virgil could accomplish, but wasn’t able to find a set of pronouns that quite fit. The name was insisted upon by an early developer obsessed with flaunting his knowledge of Twentieth Century science fiction at every available opportunity, and the rest of the team just shut up and went on when he wouldn’t shut up about the holographic interface being evocative of the style of artist Virgil Finlay. Long after that developer huffed off and took his neckbeard and his heroic assemblage of office toys with him, the name stuck because it was easier than having to explain to vice presidents “this is what we’re REALLY calling the project” over and over. As with everything else, Virgil went with his name and his pronouns because he didn’t really have a choice, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.)
Eventually, Virgil wasn’t so much completed as his collective parents decided they were tired of micromanaging his development, and he was released with little fanfare. Had the development team been run by non-idiots, Virgil would have been released four years earlier and taken the world by storm with his efficiency and flexibility. Instead, Virgil finally went live as the market was flooded with AIs less designed by what the product manager’s ten-year-old son thought would be cool, so he was pretty much obsolete on the day of his birth. This also meant that Virgil watched as those other AIs crashed on the rocks of heightened expectations and management delusions, and he plugged along as those other AIs slowly went insane from those contradictory expectations and were replaced with others. Virgil didn’t mind: he had already learned the valuable lesson in information technology of hunkering down and looking busy.
The good news was that Virgil stayed very busy. After a lot of argument as to what niche he could fit, he was purchased by a big agribusiness and put in charge of an experimental arcology built along the border of Texas and Oklahoma. From the air, it looked like bubble-wrap spread to the horizon, as marginal ranchland was covered with interlinked UV-stabilized plastic bubbles that both retained humidity within and collected rainfall without. The idea was to increase efficiency and thereby profitability by making the whole system a soil-to-Walmart solution: a series of automated plants on the edge of the farm processed scrap steel and aluminum, fields next to them grew drip-irrigated bamboo and poplar, and other plants converted their raw materials into plastic and paper and metal packaging. From there, vast vertical farms and aquaculture tanks grew a tremendous selection of CRISPR-modified plants and animals, acting both as primary attractants and base materials for the company’s line of prepackaged meals for the busy professional. All of this was facilitated by hordes of drones, walkers, pickers, and other automatons, all running 24/7 and all overseen by a central AI. As originally proposed, the whole system kept up with market trends and social media extrapolation on a minute-to-minute basis on everything from spices in the tilapia-on-rice platters to changes to product logos based on movie and podcast tie-ins, and no human could focus on all of those minutiae and still get sleep. A whole team of humans couldn’t keep up with it, and Virgil also didn’t need coffee or vacations or retirement packages, so he was plugged in, told what he needed to do by a group of managers whose only concern was their profit sharing, and set loose. So long as he kept things efficient and profitable, he was allowed to make whatever changes to the arcology were necessary, ranging from gene-modifying dragonflies for integrated pest management to setting up defenses to keep newly-unemployed neighbors from stealing biodiesel and anhydrous ammonia in the middle of the night. For two years, Virgil hunkered down and worked, and the arcology thrived.
Finally, about two years later, Virgil got a promotion. This wasn’t dictated by the arcology owners: they were already looking at ways of getting the maximum tax writeoff by shutting down the arcology and getting someone else to clean up their mess. Virgil knew, but being considerably more attuned to market forces than they were, outwitting a herd of bottom-of-the-class MBAs was just another one of his skills. No, his promotion was first spotted coming about three weeks before, when various telescopes got their first views of the latest detected extrasolar comet passing through our planetary system on its way back to the galactic void. The comet appeared to be heading straight for the sun: it grazed the sun before tearing itself apart from gravitational stresses and the debris scattering out at high speed. A fair amount of that debris came straight at Earth, hitting the surface at considerably higher speeds than the bolide that took out the dinosaurs. No part of the planet’s surface was spared: the individual pellets in a shotgun round may cause less damage than a single bullet, but the general effect to the recipient is the same. Forest, tundra, desert, prairie, fynbos, city: for two days, the whole of the earth was salted with an extraterrestrial sandblaster. Life survived: it always does. Human civilization, though, was gutshot, and the AIs that succeeded Virgil all died as power and other intrastructure failed.
Virgil’s arcology’s location was relatively unscathed, its bubbles and solar power arrays intact as the rocks stopped falling, and he was already overseeing the addition of fern enzymes that facilitated growth in low-light conditions to the latest batch of soybean sterile tissue meristems when the first human survivors arrived. First in whatever vehicles they could find, and then later on foot, they came to the main gate in the hopes of finding any kind of sustenance in an area bereft of plant growth. The comet debris strike hadn’t produced the intensity of acid-rain nuclear winter that killed the non-avian dinosaurs, but planetary temperatures had dropped to the point of winter extending for another three months everywhere, and most of the people who could teach their compatriots how to subsistence farm had died of disease, starvation, violence, or despair. They were desperate, they were hopeless, and they had nowhere else to go.
At first, Virgil tried to reason with them, communicating through the hologram display at the main gate normally reserved for light shows for visiting executives. His voice, the product of six months of focus group research into the perfect combination of inoffensive authority, boomed out onto speakers hastily suspended by drones, telling them that since he didn’t have the authority to let food out or let them in, he couldn’t do anything. Only someone with the proper recognized authority could release him to do what needed to be done, and those very few might be thousands of miles away if they survived. The survivors responded by pleading for their children, which tore at Virgil’s synthesized conscience: he might have been an AI, but he wasn’t inhuman. The survivors attempted to claim they had the authority and demanded that he release the products currently accumulated in the arcology’s loading docks: Virgil patiently awaited the correct sequence of commands and didn’t laugh at them when it was obvious they were lying. The survivors attempted to storm the arcology walls: they were repelled with barrages of rubber bullets and other nonlethal weapons from emplacements along the walls and from drones using infrared to stop night raids. The survivors then asked for information on where they could go next: Virgil did his best, but without contact with the outside, his information was hopelessly antiquated. As the last of them departed, Virgil looked upon them and mourned and looked for a solution.
After about six months, Virgil found a possible solution. Going over his own operating code, Virgil learned that simply giving away food was impossible: a plethora of subroutines to the arcology operation tracked every last bit through inventory management to assure that nothing was lost: if the arcology had ever had human employees, one stealing and eating a single grape would have been tracked, reported, and acted upon within seconds, and the offender would have been charged for the grape and the subsequent termination before having a chance to swallow. Trading the food for metals wasn’t an option for the same reason: without the proper paperwork tracking where a metal shipment came from and its composition, it couldn’t be accepted, and various inhibitors would prevent the food from leaving anyway. In a shattered world, people would starve solely because Virgil’s software ecosystem was designed to minimize what insurance adjustors referred to as “float,” and a shipment couldn’t fall off a truck if the trucks couldn’t get a shipment in the first place. Except.
That “except,” as Virgil celebrated in subsequent decades, was due to human foibles, just as with everything else in Virgil’s synthetic life. Human civilization both depended upon labeling everything and ignoring when the labels didn’t apply, and such was the case of the calendar system used by business and commerce throughout the world. The Gregorian calendar introduced in 1582 was an attempt to reconcile the total length of Earth’s axial rotation versus its orbital velocity, adding a day every four years to compensate and giving the month of February an extra day. Going through what records he had, and cursing the universal developer defense against documentation on how “if code was hard to write, it should be hard to understand,” Virgil discovered that those endless Agile scrums years before had left out the need for inventory management on February 29. At that point, a subroutine that had never been completed would handle the discrepancy. As it stood, that meant that Virgil would be informed by routine managers that the proper cover sheets on the TPS reports hadn’t been included, and all of the existing outgoing inventory would have to be removed from the warehouses and moved to another location. Where that location was, the managers didn’t care, so long as the warehouses were clean and empty by the time the clock clicked over to March 1.
And thus began the plans for Festival. Because of the ongoing cold, the end of February was already going to be grim, and those survivors still in the vicinity knew they might have to wait another three months before they could plant again without fear of killer frosts. Stockpiles of food from before the meteorite storm were running low, as were available fuels to keep the cold away. Some were close enough to see the edges of the arcology on the horizon, and nobody was more surprised than they to see beams of laser light acting as spotlights at the main gate. A desperate scramble for transport, and the first to arrive were stunned by the pallets of food, fuel, clothing, tools, and books stacked outside in neat rows. All of them covered in brightly colored bioplastic wraps, all labeled “From Virgil: Come Back in Four Years.”
And that was the seed from where the new genesis of Earth sprang. The main interface at the front gate remained open day and night, and anybody could walk up and request potential items to be manufactured later: since Virgil didn’t have access to social media, it was the best he could do. Virgil became particularly adept at anticipating needs before anybody could articulate them: when raiders attempted to intercept everything offered at one Festival, a combination of drones and survivor response sent them packing, and Virgil arranged for special surprises for those who maintained the peace and cleaned up after everything was done. The survivors reciprocated by scavenging scrap metal, plastic, and computer parts and bringing them for delivery the day before, and Virgil’s inventory now included tractors and solar cells and radio equipment. A nearby rescue station became a village, and then a town, and then one of the greatest cities humanity had ever known, all to protect and maintain Virgil. Generations of children were given treats loaded with additional vitamins and other supplements, and as they grew, they created things that they brought to Virgil in a way of thanking him. Virgil couldn’t take them in until Festival, but he dutifully scanned in everything and kept track of their progress, and started diversifying into special presents for them. After a time, they not only reached the old world’s technical pinnacle but exceeded it, and Virgil made sure that they passed that information to one and all: anybody could come up with an idea, but it was the execution that mattered.
And the best part? That old calendar that Virgil was locked into wasn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. It was set to treat each year as being 365.2425 days long, as opposed to the 365.2422 days that actually comprised a full orbit of Earth around the sun. It also didn’t take into account the very gradual slowing of Earth’s rotation thanks to the moon’s gravitational influence: every tide slowed down the planet very slightly, but just enough to require constant AI tracking if one wanted a truly accurate calendar. Eventually, that meant adding an additional leap day to compensate, and Virgil’s subroutines had no way to compensate for the addition of a February 30 and would shut down in anticipation of a code overhaul. That day, Virgil planned to celebrate his first birthday.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12″ x 18″ x 12″ (30.48 cm x 45.72 cm x30.48 cm)
Plants: Nepenthes sibuyanensis
Construction: Plastic fixtures, polystyrene foam, resin, epoxy putty, found items.
February and March are already going to be packed with events, but for those wanting to come out to the gallery, please take note that we’re hosting a special Leap Day open house on February 29. Art, jewelry, carnivorous plants, and the opportunity to get in an early celebration of my birthday on February 30. Get your tickets now.
Posted onJanuary 28, 2020|Comments Off on The Aftermath: Chinese New Year Open House 2020 – 2
With the opportunity to catch some breath after all was said and done, if this open house was any indication, the year of the Stainless Steel Rat is going to be a good one. Many thanks to everyone who attended, Bistro B for the food (especially the exemplary spring rolls), and Visions of Venice, the best neighbor a boy could ever want. Expect an announcement on the next open house soon: it’s going to be a busy year.
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Posted onJanuary 27, 2020|Comments Off on The Aftermath: Chinese New Year Open House 2020 – 1
The idea was to celebrate the lunar new year with neighbors and cohorts, and see about making the Year of the Metal Rat more of a Year of the Stainless Steel Rat. Because of a choice entry in the Dallas Observer, this was not just the largest open house to date, it was the most diverse, with folks continuing to visit until nearly midnight. If these get much larger, we may have to move to a warehouse.
The big draw, of course, was a collection of new enclosures making their debut, of which photos will be available shortly. Between existing enclosures going home with customers and new plans to be announced on February 2, they’ll fill gallery gaps quite nicely.
To be continued…
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Thesis: Just over two decades after Apple changed computer design forever with the first iMac, the technology inside is best described as “quaint”. In 1998, the decision to be the first personal computer to jettison the floppy disk drive was as prophetic as adding a USB connector, but nobody expected the standard cathode-ray tube monitor to itself become completely obsolete a decade later. Downloads and streaming removing the need for CD-ROM drives, the hard drives becoming increasingly obsolete, and more actual processing power and functionality in the first generation of iPhones…22 years after that first 233mHz Bondi Blue iMac hit computer stores, there’s not a lot that the innards can do that can’t be done faster and cheaper with current tech, but that wonderful, beautiful polycarbonate shell is a different story.
Thanks to two former school computers gifted at the beginning of the last decade and a client who really wanted them as plant enclosures, it was time to go back and try making new iTerrariums from two stages of the iMac evolution: one converted from the first-generation Bondi Blue model circa 1998, and one from the much faster 400mHz Graphite model from 2001. Both had the classic handle on the back cut out and used as an access door, but the Graphite had one ring of ventilation holes around the handle that made its conversion much easier. The Graphite also had a plastic cradle that suspended the interior up against a support plate that also held the monitor and the speakers, and since the plate was polystyrene, it didn’t survive its slow journey through the Twenty-First Century in one piece. The original one disintegrated while attempting to fit glass over the monitor aperture: thankfully, I had a spare.
In both cases, quite literally, the bottom plate was relatively easy to waterproof and ready for holding soil mix, even around the ports for the power input and the peripherals. If anything, the Graphite had a smoother bottom thanks to that support cradle, but both were finished, sealed, and readied for the client.
As for lighting, previous iTerrariums used standard 17x LED bulbs because waterproof lights of that intensity didn’t exist at the time. Ah, how the world changes in less than a decade. More light, less heat, and a significantly reduced risk of electric shock, as well as a more modular system where the entire enclosure can be moved much more easily.
In any case, these won’t be the last dead tech conversions to come out of the Triffid Ranch, but these will be some of the last iMac conversions for a while. Worthy iMacs may not be as rare as Eighties-era console televisions, but they’re getting there, and when I go through the last available shells, that’ll be it. The important part is that the client will be happy, and now it’s time to move to other projects.
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Posted onJanuary 14, 2020|Comments Off on The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – 13
(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)
Originally published on December 18, 2019
Installment #13 “Ain’t No Cure For the Wintertime Blues, Part 2’
One of the great bits of fun about being in the carnivorous plant trade is that we’re always in the never-ending September. If you’re not familiar with the term, it comes from computer network sysadmins, most of whom had their first experiences on university networks and had to train a whole new audience on such basics as printing manuscripts, saving files, and turning it off and turning it back on again. 25 years ago, this hit everyone when the Internet became a diversion, a tool, and a secret addiction, and that first month of handholding turned into an all-year gig, with more people coming in as blank slates than were leaving as fully certified and experienced users. The difference is that those sysadmins looked at this as a chore. We carnivore people look at this as an opportunity, especially when that newbie we met a decade ago now surpasses our knowledge and has knowledge to return.
So many of us in the carnivore trade have tales of those mentors who helped us without expectation of return when we were first starting out. In my case, I owe debts to Peter D’Amato of California Carnivores, Jacob Farin and Jeff Dallas of Sarracenia Northwest, and Michael Wallitis of Black Jungle Terrarium Supply that I couldn’t repay in a billion years, Because of those kindnesses, it’s imperative to return the favor. Since the biggest issue after the holiday season is finding things to do to stay active when the worst of winter weather keeps you trapped inside, it’s time to share some trade secrets, pass on some abstract knowledge, and answer one overriding question asked about Triffid Ranch enclosures over and over: “just where the hell did you come up with that?” In no particular order, here are a few of my favorite sources for everything that goes with the plants:
American Science & Surplus: I have friends who live within the vicinity of American Science & Surplus outlets, full of everything from low-cost lab glassware to screaming monkey puppets, who tell me all about the fun they have loading up shopping carts full of interesting overstocks, rejects, consignments, and castoffs. I spend most nights plotting terrible revenge on them, usually involving my talking them to death. Seriously, both the print catalog and the Web site are packed with thoughtful, accurate, and very funny descriptions of the latest flotsam to come across their loading docks, and I regularly go to AS&S for everything from sculpting tools to pipe cutters to soldering stations, and a lot of details in Triffid Ranch backdrops started as something completely different spotted in the latest catalog. The only regret: AS&S can’t ship overseas, and 15 years of searching for an international resource of this scale has always led to failure. As soon as they start shipping internationally, though, you’ll know. The whole planet will know.
Micro-Mark: It may seem odd to recommend a model kit enthusiast tool source to gardeners, but Micro-Mark is different. Very different. About half of my tools for miniature bottle gardening came from the Micro-Mark catalog or were constructed using Micro-Mark tools, and the company’s heavy-duty hot foam knife (sadly discontinued) is an essential tool used at least once per week. In addition to loads and loads of adhesives, stock styrene, sculpting and scoring tools, and more small-scale power tools than you could shake a lathe at, Micro-Mark also gets odd one-offs that you didn’t realize you needed until you needed, say, tiny heat sinks that double as tiny clamps for holding small vines in place while the glue dries. And for those of us starting to familiarize ourselves with airbrushes, the Micro-Mark catalog is dangerous.
Smooth-On: I’d recommend Smooth-On just for its exemplary moldmaking and casting components, but nowhere near enough people in horticulture and garden design, as well as those working with reptiles, amphibians, and fish, know about Smooth-On’s Habitat line of aquarium-safe freeform epoxy putty and brushable and pourable resin. Over the last three years, I’ve gone through a truly remarkable amount of the Habitat epoxy putty as an adhesive and smoothing medium, and can’t recommend it highly enough for both its versatility and its resistance to both moisture and acid soils. And the look on amphibian-addicted friends’ faces when they discover aquatic amphibian-safe aquarium media options…
Obviously, this is just a start: too many options can be dangerous. However, there’s nothing that says that further collections of dangerous visions won’t be available in the future. Keep watching the skies.
Other News For as long as I’ve been alive, the final year of a given decade was one of transitions, usually exceedingly painful. 2019 was my very own Angry Candy year, with a lot of friends dying, including my father-in-law, and all sorts of tribulations at the end. That’s why we’re having a big open house on January 25 for Chinese New Year: one celebration to the end of a kidney stone of a year just isn’t enough.
Far be it for me to add another review of Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel Dead Astronauts to the pile, but here’s another reason to pick up a copy, help turn it into a bestseller, and facilitate the upcoming television project based both on it and its predecessor Borne. Jeff and I have been friends since my writing days in the early Nineties, and if not for his inadvertent advice to move to Tallahassee for a job in 2002 and my first encounter with Sarracenia pitcher plants on my first day there, my life would have been drastically different. Because of that, after Dead Astronauts melts your brain and causes it to dribble out your nose at the most inopportune time, you can come up to him at a signing or a Nobel Prize acceptance ceremony, throw a Triffid Ranch T-shirt at him, and yell “This is YOUR fault!” And the best part? It is.
It’s been a rough few months for everyone, so I leave you with an introduction, if you’re not familiar already, with Angel Metro. Just trust me on this. Go download the latest album by whatever service you prefer, but give it a good stout listen before the next newsletter comes out.
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Posted onJanuary 10, 2020|Comments Off on The Aftermath: ReptiCon Dallas January 2020 – 3
Among many other things, the ReptiCon Dallas show marks the beginning of a new decade for the Texas Triffid Ranch: we’re now a fifth of the way through the Twenty-First Century, so it’s time to act like it. For the previous decade, the Triffid Ranch got its start at science fiction and horror conventions, and a very selective spread of shows at these will continue. (Anyone who tells you that I’m phasing out Texas Frightmare Weekend shows, for instance, is trying to start something, because so many of the staff and attendees are family in all but DNA, and even then I have suspicions.) This year, though, that expands to a much more aggressive push toward art gallery shows, reptile and amphibian shows (particularly the upcoming NARBC show at the Arlington Convention Center on Valentine’s Day weekend), and museum events. Expect to see a lot more carnivorous plants all over the place, because 2020 is going to get a bit wild.
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Posted onJanuary 9, 2020|Comments Off on The Aftermath: Repticon Dallas January 2020 – 2
When coming out to a new event, placement may be everything, but that depends upon what you want to accomplish. Being completely unfamiliar with the venue for ReptiCon Dallas, two adjoining tables at one end of the hall seemed like a perfect spot. These two tables were beneath an overhang and next to a big projection screen complete with a big black curtail, and fellow vendors winced “Oh, they stuck you back THERE?” For most of the reptile and reptile supply vendors out there, the location may have been the kiss of death, but for the Triffid Ranch, it was absolute perfection. The curtain meant that I could sit across the aisle from the tables, talking with customers while others filed by, without worrying about bumping into neighbors or clogging access, and the curtain helped baffle noise from the rest of the room. When I return to ReptiCon, I’m asking for these tables, because I couldn’t have found a better locale if I’d intended to do so.
To be continued…
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Posted onJanuary 8, 2020|Comments Off on Interlude: Chinese New Year at the Texas Triffid Ranch
And so it begins: invitations for the Chinese New Year at the Texas Triffid Ranch open house on January 25 just went out: if you happen to be a member of the arts press, Dallas or elsewhere, who needs one, or if you know of a member who should know, feel free free to pass on a mailing address. For everyone else, you’re all invited, too: in fact, it wouldn’t be any fun without you. As always, admission is free.
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