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July 31, 2006: Brides, Girlfriends, and Friends

Thirty-seven years ago tonight, I wandered into a church-basement function at Immaculate Conception parish in the northwest corner of Chicago, and a few hours later wandered out again, stunned at what I had done: asked a beautiful girl out on a date, without anyone else's intermediation. (All my previous dates had been setups.) After a few weeks of doing unconventional things with Carol—we flew a home-made D-stix tetrahedral kite together, looked at the stars through my vent-pipe junkbox telescope, and attended a corn roast at my family's summer home near Third Lake—I was stunned at something else: She actually seemed to like me on my own merits, nerdy and eccentric as I was. (The photo at left, from October 1969, perfectly captures the Beauty and the Geek impression we must have given people back in our first years together.) I had had modest hopes of finding a girlfriend at that church basement function, but I hit the jackpot: I found a friend instead.

More and more I hear guys say "my bride" instead of "my wife." Maybe this is because "wife" has been deprecated as a reserved word, which is one of my main gripes with our feminist fringe. I think perhaps that the guys understand this and are reaching a little further for a term of honor, and "bride" is certainly that. Carol was and always will be my bride.

Alas, "bride" is not enough. I know of a number of marriages in which bride and groom can barely stand one another. A "girlfriend" these days usually means a woman you're sleeping with. (The irony of "lover" as a word for a person one has sex with irrespective of the presence of any real love has always made me grimace.) English has many words for many odd and highly specific things—"cerate" means "to coat with wax"—but I have yet to find the word that combines "bride," "girlfriend," and "friend" into a single term of honor. I suppose it's difficult to be a spouse, lover, and friend all at the same time; more difficult, fersure, than coating something with wax. That Carol and I have managed it for so many years is a point of intense pride with me, and if I can't have a word, so be it. The reality speaks for itself.

July 30, 2006: Odd Notes on Chicagoland

Carol and I are in Niles, Illinois (adjoining Chicago on the north end) for a while, helping her mom out with a few things. Although we both grew up here (she in the very house we're staying in) we had forgotten a few things:

  • It gets hot here—hot and smotheringly damp. I don't know how they breathe this stuff. It was 100+ degrees here today, with humidity you could cut with a hacksaw. I've been hiding in the basement a lot.
  • The soil is black. Very black. We took "black dirt" for granted as kids, but everywhere else I've lived the soil has run from brown to red. Digging in the yard was startling.
  • The air raid sirens are still tested at 10:30 AM every Tuesday, as they did when we were kids. I always thought that this was a nationwide phenomenon, but nowhere else we've lived performs such tests. Fort Carson sounds off a similar siren every time anybody at the base spots a thunderhead, with a Lost In Space robot-style voice slowly announcing "Severe...thunderstorm...warning. Severe...thunderstorm...warning..." but tests are rare and not at any specified time.
  • We stopped for coffee at a White Hen Pantry in Crystal Lake the other day, and they had a fresh produce rack with apples, sweet red peppers, string beans, and sweet corn. Yet another reason I consider White Hen the best convenience store in history. Their coffee is spectacularly good, and they often have flavors you don't see at other similar retailers. As best I can tell, White Hen is a Chicago metro phenom. We've not seen them anywhere else. Try their coffee if you haven't already.
  • There is a style of two-sided poured concrete washtub in the basement of virtually every Chicago-area house built from WWII until 1970 or so that I've never seen anywhere else. The one we had on Clarence Avenue in Chicago's northwest corner actually had a little aluminum washboard embedded in the side of one of the tubs. Having two tubs can be extremely useful, in that one can be used to wash dogs, and the other to rinse them, especially if the wash contains flea dip. Our dogs Hank and Smoker got this treatment more than once, down in the basement in the house where I grew up.
  • The cicadas are going nuts this year. In the afternoon they've been deafening, and I don't recall hearing any at all in Colorado Springs so far. We were walking QBit down Main St. the other day, when he happened upon an adult cicada sitting on the sidewalk. The adults don't bite (I'm not sure they even have mouths to bite with) but when poked they buzz startlingly. QBit nosed it very lightly, wondering if it might be tasty, and when the insect sounded off he jumped two feet straight up.
  • Everywhere else we've lived, "family restaurants" are dominated by monster chains like Denny's, Village Inn, and so on. Here, there are any number of excellent one-off family eateries, all (for some reason) owned by Greek guys. Kappy's, Omega, and Seven Brothers are the ones we visit, but in driving around the area I see them all over the place. The menus are unprediuctable and a lot more varied (Kappy's sells gyros and reuben sandwiches side by side) and I often wish some Greeks would move to Colorado and open places like this.

July 29, 2006: Artisanal Cheese

When we were up in Wisconsin a few days ago, my cousins Rose and Al took us around the old turf (my mother was from Wisconsin and many of my cousins still live there) to show us, mostly, that nothing was the way it was when we had spent time there in the late 1950s and 1960s. We went past the old cheese factory, to which my dairy farmer uncle had sold milk for many years. The factory is now a quirky house and handsome in its way, though I wonder how it smells inside on a hot afternoon. Certainly I'd prefer that it be a house rather than a teardown to make way for a generic McMansion—but in truth, I wish it were still a cheese factory.

Dairy farming in Wisconsin seems to be in decline. (I don't have any hard numbers, but we didn't see many cows in fields along the roads we traveled.) So I was pleased to read in the July 28th issue of The Chicago Reader that Wisconsin is still ground zero for cheese production, at 2.4 billion pounds sold last year, tops in the country. California is right behind at 2 billion pounds, though much of what they produce is the ugly orange "American" cheese that I haven't willingly eaten for almost forty years.

Wisconsin apparently saw the threat from California, and has been moving aggressively into "artisanal" cheese. (This means cheese made by artisans, though I didn't know "artisanal" was a word. Shades of "liaise.") A few weeks ago Wisconsin cheeses swept the American Cheese Society competition, held in Portland Oregon for reasons unexplained. Blue ribbons were won by Wisconsin for things like "best blue-mold cheese made from cow's milk" and "best cheddar aged longer than 49 months."

I never liked cheese that much, mostly because all the cheese we ever had at our house was that horrible American stuff, and whatever artificially colored imitation cheese-flavored goop substitute it was that we put on macaroni and called dinner. (I grew up poor, and I think I've had enough mac-and-cheese and toasted cheese sandwiches for one lifetime, thanks.) I actually learned to like cheese through Carol, who considers it her favorite food category. I've found that a couple of slices of a good strong Romano cheese mid-afternoon keeps me from munching potato chips, and that after a couple of slices, I stop. (It doesn't work that way with potato chips, heh.)

So it's good to see that Wisconsin's designer cheese industry is booming. Good things generally come from small producers, and there are 1,225 licensed cheese producers in Wisconsin, almost all of them family businesses. (That number doesn't include hobby cheesemakers, of whom there are many.) Not all of them make money, but the artisanal cheese field is relatively new, and I suspect that there are a lot of other people out there like me, who would eat good cheese if they simply knew it existed and could find it.

Alas, quirky products are often local in nature, and I don't live anywhere near Wisconsin anymore. I have come to like quirky wines, and have found more among Colorado wines than I can deal with; in a sense, local wines, to compete with mass-market tank car wines from California, almost have to be quirky. The same is likely true of cheese, and if I can find a source for odd Wisconsin cheese in the Springs, I will be a very happy guy.

In the meantime, you folks here in Chicago should see what interesting things have come down I-94 from American's Dairyland, and enjoy your privileged position as the Closest Big City to the World's Best Cheese.

July 28, 2006: Combating "Government Theater"

Back in Chicago. And mon dieu, Chicago politics. I catch flack when I say that politicians are liars, morons, or nasty people, and maybe the objectors are right. Maybe it's not the people. Maybe it's the system. The core truth is that politics as we know it today is not about furthering the common good, but about having power and keeping a government job. As long as politicians can look like they're doing what the people want (or say what the people want to hear, even if it's all lies) the people will keep electing them. Call it "government theater." It's what we have, and it's not doing us any good.

Maybe there's another way. Maybe democracy shouldn't be about electing people. Maybe democracy should be about setting targets.

Imagine a system of democracy that works a little like a simulation game, in which lawmakers may keep their offices indefinitely as long as several key measurable societal parameters are all kept within democratically set boundaries. The people choose the target values via regular referenda, and the politicians are charged with meeting the targets to keep their jobs. In other words, if you're on the city council, you can stay on the city council as long as budgets remain balanced, taxes do not rise, unemployment is kept under 3%, school scores are at the national average or above, and crime rates are at the national average or below. Lose any parameter, and we get a special election that chooses a whole new city council and mayor. Like Sim City without the sim. (Oh, and once you're out, your political career is over.)

Figuring out how to set numeric targets via referenda is an interesting problem, but not an insurmountable one.

The idea here is that politicians can say whatever they want to get elected, but getting elected is only the beginning. Elected lawmakers would have to produce the results that the people want, or retire. Politicians will of course say that this is impossible, but it's unwise to believe anything politicians say. We won't know until we try.

July 27, 2006: Ghost Towns

Carol, Rose, Al, and I did a little wandering before we had to head back. We drove through several of the tiny towns near Green Bay where we had all spent time as kids. Some, like Pulaski, seemed to be booming. Others, like Krakow (above), the tiny hamlet just down the road from my uncle's farm, were rapidly becoming ghost towns. The little grocery story and the ice cream shop were gone, though there's still a bar. Remarkably, St. Casimir's, the little Roman Catholic church we always went to on Sunday (with the sermon said first in Polish and then a second time in English!) is still there and still active, set amidst beautifully maintained grounds. By contrast, the 1928 public grade school, long shuttered, is rapidly being absorbed by the weeds.

Interestingly, we did not see churches being turned into bars, or organic grocery stores, or eccentric houses. The Polish-American culture in northern Wisconsin is still strong. The cathedral in Pulaski is enormous and full on Sundays. There's even an Old Catholic mission church forming in Pulaski: The Polish National Catholic Church (an Old Catholic jurisdiction with married priests and bishops) bought an old Lutheran church and are rehabbing it.

I fought back a certain annoyance at Krakow's decline by reminding myself that this is nothing new. Towns vanish all the time for reasons that we may never fully understand. Towns, like farms, can consolidate, especially with better roads and cars for anyone who wants one. If there's more choice in Pulaski when you need to go shopping, why stop in Krakow? I suspect that Krakow was very much the town of very small farmers along narrow, twisting county tracks like Gohr Road, and most of them are gone now.

I take some comfort in seeing that Krakow may be an exception. Most of the towns we passed through in Wisconsin seemed remarkably vibrant, with plenty of local retail and new cars in driveways. Fewer people seem to be employed in farming, but more people are employed in other industries, stores, and infrastructure jobs catering to people who build houses in the far outlying towns and commute into Green Bay.

Maybe some are even telecommiting to IT jobs in Silicon Valley, hacking C# code between trips out to the barn to slop the hogs. For the price of a condo in Cupertino, you can have a farm in northern Wisconsin. And hey, if they lay you off, you still can have eggs for breakfast every morning, and all the pork you can stand!

July 26, 2006: Diversity in Small Farming

We went visiting today, and saw three of my cousins who are Uncle Joey's kids, two of whom I hadn't seen since I was in high school. Aunt Della is still alive and we visited with her as well.

It does come as a shock to see cousins as middle-aged when the last time you saw them they were fourteen. We drove past the place where the old farm used to be, on Gohr road near Krakow, almost directly across from the huge Gohr family farm that was the road's namesake. The buildings were torn down decades ago and the acreage sold to adjoining farms. (Even the silos had been razed.) I recognized a couple of the big trees that once held big tire swings. (Who needs a Tilt-a-Whirl when your cousin Tony will spin the tire with you in the middle of it?) The rest was simply gone.

Easily the most interesting visit of the day was with my cousin John Pryes. He's only two months younger than me, and we did a lot of exploring in the back fields and woods on and near his family's property when we were kids and young teens. He went back to farming some years back after a long absense, and he works a small farm near Pulaski with his daughter and ten-year-old granddaughter. Both he and his daughter work day jobs; he as an IT guy at a hospital in Appleton and she at a yacht factory in Pulaski.

Nonetheless, they have three small barns, a one-acre garden with everything from sweet peas to Concord grapes, some acreage in various animal feed crops, and an amazing diversity of animals. They have several beef cattle, including one bull. They have two adult pigs and (currently) eight five-week-old piglets. They have a large flock of what to me were enormous chickens. They have several lop-eared rabbits. They also have four or five sheep and about ten goats, along with two dogs and an unknown number of cats. QBit was a little apprehensive, sniffing noses through the fencing with creatures many times his size, and one of John's cats kept trying to play with him, which definitely took him aback. (My sister's cats are terrified of him.)

The economics of a farm like this are complex. They shear the sheep themselves and sell the wool. The breed of goats they raise are meat animals and do not give good milk; they sell them to locals either to augment their own herds or to slaughter. The cattle are beef cattle, and they sell calves to other farmers. The same with the pigs: They sell piglets to other farmers to keep genetic diversity up, and mostly grown pigs as meat. Their chickens lay about a dozen and a half eggs a day, which certainly keeps the family in eggs, but isn't really enough to make much money on, though they barter eggs for small quantities of other things they need.

And as John said with his same old wry grin, they always have as much pork as they can stand.

Like all small farmers (and his father before him) John is an espert Yankee mechanic, and he has two tractors in one of his barns that have been in continuous service since WWII. He rents unneeded space in his barns to his city friends who need a place to put their boats or classic car projects. It's hardly the high life, but John seems happy and healthy. He has a volleyball court next to his house and makes time to use it. Lord knows he gets his exercise, and were it not for the gray hair he would look ten years younger than he is. It's not a life I could ever embrace, but I admire him for it, and it was good to finally see him again after all these years.

July 25, 2006: Barns and Back Roads

Wisconsin is sacred ground for me. My mother was born here, and we visited my dairy farmer uncle frequently when we were kids. It was the first place I ever actually touched animals that weren't dogs, and drank water that came out of a well. It was where I learned that peas fresh from the pods they grew in taste way different than peas in a can. It was where I discovered (ouch!) that cucumbers have thorns. Coming from a claustrophobic city neighborhood as I did (the house I grew up in was on a lot only 30 feet wide!) it just seemed like Wisconsin went on forever.

Carol and I decided not to take the Interstate up to Green Bay, or even US Highway 41, which might as well be an Interstate. Instead, we took ordinary two-lane roads, and willingly went through small towns instead of doing anything possible to avoid them. We didn't steer in the direction of any tourist attractions. We just drove, and paid attention to what went by outside the Sprinter Legend's very big windows.

Farms, of course—and an enormous amount of green stuff, both wild and cultivated. I've lived in dry places for almost twenty years now, and by comparison, Wisconsin seemed like a jungle. I expected to see a lot of cows, but in fact we saw a lot more corn than cows. All I could think of was ethanol—or perhaps high-fructose corn syrup. One wonders where all the milk comes from now; my guess is California.

Dairy farming was not a big-money business even when I was a kid. Uncle Joey had forty or fifty cows and he still had to work a second job at a local pickle factory to make ends meet, and from what I remember, he made about as much money selling cucumbers to local pickle producers as he did selling milk, and he sold the farm in the early 1970s as his children grew up and left home.

Small commodity farming as a viable business model is probably extinct. One thing that struck me as we drove the winding roads in rural Wisconsin was the number of concrete silos standing in the thick of cultivated fields without any barns or other buildings nearby. What's clearly happened is that small farms have been merged with bigger ones, and the rickety, WW-I era buildings torn down and sold for their weathered wood. Knocking down concrete silos is difficult and expensive, however, so the silos are left to stand, empty and often capless, at the edges of fields.

The farms that remain are huge, compared to my poor uncle's little place. We would often see two or three modern barns side by side, with bright metal silos and enormous pieces of equipment painted John Deere green. It's big business now, and without economies of scale, I don't think that small farms can survive.

We had a quiet dinner this evening at a restaurant along Duck Creek near Howard with my cousin Rose and her childhood sweetheart Al. They knew one another as young teens fifty years ago, and then left Wisconsin to find their own lives elsewhere, complete with spouses and kids. Now, both widowed for some years, they've returned to Wisconsin and found one another. We toasted to steadfast love. Carol and I know that feeling in one another; it was good to see it in other people around us.

Tomorrow we look up some of the cousins, and cruise around the old territory a little.

July 24, 2006: Off to Wisconsin!

Given that we'll be here in the midwest for another week or two, Carol and I decided to take a break and embark on a trip-within-a-trip, to drive up to Green Bay. I have 21 first cousins on my mother's side, of whom more than half live in Wisconsin, nearly all within a few miles of Green Bay, and many of which I haven't seen in more than thirty years.

So we rented another small RV and aimed its nose north this morning. The RV is from Great West Vans, a Canadian company that specializes in the small Class B van conversion RVs. We rented a Class B back in June and took it to Breckenridge, and because an RV dealer in the northwest burbs rents Class Bs, it was a natural. The Great West Sprinter Legend is interesting because it's basically a conversion of the Dodge Sprinter van, which was designed by Daimler in Germany and uses a 5-cylinder (!) turbo-charged Diesel engine from Mercedes-Benz.

It was designed as a delivery van for use in Europe, and its narrow body probably works better on European roads. The narrow body means that there's not a lot of elbow room inside, and although it's tall and has plenty of headroom, the two small beds in back are probably about what the swabbies get in the belly of an aircraft carrier.

The bathroom is basically identical to the bathroom in the Pleasureway Class B we took to Breckenridge, with a very small shower and a pull-out sink. We don't intend to try the shower. (I dare you to shower well in a vehicle with a five-gallon hot water tank and two and a half square feet of space to stand in!) The toilet is a sailboat toilet, and although it's better than nothing, it's not a lot better than nothing. The bathroom door kept opening on the trip up, and I had to wedge it with the cooler to keep it from flapping around.

For something this small, the Sprinter Legend has a reasonable amount of storage space, distributed among a lot of tiny cabinets and a decent-sized "trunk" under the beds. We had no trouble fitting two suitcases, a storage bin, and a cooler in the vehicle, along with my very fat briefcase and a lot of other odds and ends. We did not rent the flat-panel TV (that was $50 extra) but there is a TV antenna on the roof, and a built-in CD/DVD player. The refrigerator can run on either propane or 110VAC, and did a very good job keeping sodas, milk, cheese, bratwurst, and yogurt cold. We're keeeping ice in the cooler for additional sodas and QBit's raw dog food that he seems to love more than life itself.

A two-burner propane stove and a microwave oven round out the kitchen equipment. There's a Diesel generator and an extremely powerful interior air conditioner that got the inside of the coach so cold that water began condensing out on the leather seats.

I doubt that Carol and I would ever buy one of these (it's just too small to sleep comfortably in) but it was certainly fun to scoot through small farm towns in it. The Diesel powerplant does an amazing job on only five cylinders. The vehicle has a lot of punch, can cruise at 80 MPH, and gets 19-22 MPG.

We stopped at a KOA campground near Fon Du Lac a few hours ago, and because they don't have Wi-Fi, I'm not entirely sure when this will get posted. Bear with us.

July 23, 2006: Sagas and Destinies

A couple of people wrote to ask me to clarify what I meant in my July 20, 2006 entry, where I said that sagas (by which I mean a background universe or situation against which stories are written) should have destinies. My Drumlins stories are part of something I informally call the Gaeans Saga, which includes The Cunning Blood and its possible sequels as well.

Stories are actually about change, in a character, a situation, or (ideally) both. So it seems to me that story backgrounds should also change over time, just as our own history does, and ultimately resolve issues pointed to by the stories in the saga. E. C. Tubb's mostly forgotten Dumarest of Terra stories were a saga, in which Dumarest searches for the lost Earth, and in each novel he finds clues and gets a little closer. (I didn't read them all, but I think that's a fair statement of what the saga's about.) We can hope that the Harry Potter books will eventually say something not only about the characters in the stories but about the relationship of magic to humanity as a whole (muggles and all) and what the hell it all means.

The Gaeans Saga contains a number of interesting larger issues, a few of which are these:

  • Who are the Gaeans?
  • What are they up to?
  • How did they arrange the universe as they did?
  • And why?
  • Where do the uploaded human minds go? (e.g., Jamie Eigen in The Cunning Blood)
  • What were the Thingmakers really created to do?
  • What is the relationship of the Gaeans to human beings?

(There are more. I've only begun to explore the place myself.) To come to a satisfying conclusion, all of these questions have to be answered. And once they're answered, there's a lot less richness to any stories you might tell within the saga. The saga has a destiny.

Some people like mystery to remain mystery, and may object to answering questions concerning mysteries. It's like asking what the restaurants are like in Tolkien's Uttermost West: Valinor is not about restaurants, and is really an elf thing, closed to mankind both physically and conceptually. That's true for mysteries that ultimately don't concern humanity (or humanity once it's transcended its humanness) but for ordinary human beings, mysteries were made to be solved. Stories and sagas that pose human mysteries but do not solve them (or do not pose them in the first place) are not as satisfying as sagas in which lives and histories change, and in doing so provide insights into the human condition.

That's what I meant, and that's what I intend to do in the Gaeans Saga. It has already started. It will go somewhere. It will reach a climax. And it will stop.

After that, well, I'll just invent another saga. That's what writers do.

July 22, 2006: Review: Monster 3-D!

We're in Chicago for a bit, and Carol's been here now for over a week, cleaning her mom's house with her sister. After a week of nonstop elbow greasing, it was time for a break, and we decided to go see Monster House. Our first issue was simply finding a theater. With the single exception of the Pickwick in Park Ridge, all the closest theaters we used to go to here as kids were gone—in many cases, long gone. The elegant Gateway at Milwaukee and Lawrence (where I remember seeing The Ten Commandments as a very small child) is now a Polish cultural center. The Morton Grove is now a shoe store. The theater up at Golf Mill is gone, as is the Lawrencewood in the shopping gully my father used to call Skunk Hollow, where I took Carol to many movies when we were teens. We had to haul east on Touhy to some nameless multiplex to find a screen on which Monster House was playing.

And then when we found a showing at the right time, we discovered that the showing was in 3-D. I was nervous: Carol already had a headache, and my experience with 3-D films was limited to two items going on thirty five or forty years ago. One was a completely awful Japanese trash-Tokyo monster flick, and the other was a sexploitation thing I saw in college (about stewardesses?) of which all I remember is instinctively ducking down in my seat as the heroine's outsized breasts swung out over the audience. Ahh, the Seventies...

So it was with some trepidation that we bought our 3-D glasses and took our seats. And I'll sum up this way: The movie gets three stars, and the 3-D technology five stars. No more green and red plastic film in cardboard goggles. The new 3-D technology is based on polarizing filters, and while it reduces the overall brightness of the film, the 3-D effect was absolutely dazzling.

The movie was modestly entertaining, but not in a league with Shrek, Monsters, Inc. or A Bug's Life. There were script problems. I kept wanting to yell at the screen: You can't compensate for crappy writing with dazzling animation! What we really have here is a clever half-hour short padded out to 90 minutes. The story is simple: Two twelve-ish boys living across the street from a seriously haunted house fail to convince the local adults that the house is swallowing dogs, brain-damaged punker boyfriends of the babysitter, and any toy that any unfortunate kid lands on the ravenous front lawn. When a cute girl selling Halloween candy door-to-door to help her exclusive prep school gets grabbed by the house, the boys rescue her, and the three of them mount an offensive that eventually gets things straightened out.

Alas, many of the film's best moments have nothing to do with the haunted house. Jenny the prep school girl engages in a fiendishly funny negotiation with the boys' babysitter, who had been tossed out of the same prep school years earlier. The babysitter's boyfriend Bones is as brilliant a sendup of punk pop culture as anything I've ever seen. DJ's father is an orthodontist who is constantly schlepping around huge models of teeth and monster toothbrushes.

I have one serious problem with the film, though telling you about it borders on a spoiler: I do not like movies that exploit the problems of fat people, especially fat women. The Hitchcockian backstory involving a WWII demolitions expert and a circus fat lady was painful to watch, and I'm sure was completely lost on the core audience.

The climax, in which the house literally uproots itself and starts walking down the street like a Japanese Tokyoivore, was a lot of fun, and the whole thing took me back a little bit to my geeky 12s, when I would oscillate between lusting after the girl down the street and playing with telescopes and imagining vast glocal conspiracies. None of the voices were by superstars, but all were very well done. The animation was an interesting compromise between the creepy Polar Express and crappy flat anime: Although the animators used motion capture technology on young live actors, they stretched out the bodies and exaggerated facial expressions enough so that we didn't fall into the Uncanny Valley.

The 3-D effects were a delightful surprise. The damned house was stomping and chomping around right in the air in front of us, and I giggled like a kid, which proved to me that Monster House indeed achieved its core mission. Recommended.

July 21, 2006: When Books Die

I flew in from Chicago yesterday, and spent four hours waiting out weather delays at O'Hare before I could even get on a plane. As always, I had a number of books in my bag, including one that I don't think I've read in over thirty years: Keith Laumer's 1969 novel The Long Twilight. Laumer is special to me: More than any other single writer, it was he who I imitated when I was in high school and beginning to write SF. I discovered Laumer in 1966 with The Great Time Machine Hoax, and read him voraciously until his work petered out in the 70s. He was a topic of much conversation at our geek lunch table, and I studied him intensely when I was trying to figure out how to write a good action sequence.

Although Laumer is now remembered mostly for his lighthearted Retief stories, The Long Twilight is typical of his serious SF dramas: Two immortal warriors from the dying interstellar empire of Ysar are marooned on a backward planet (Earth) about our year 1000. Although initially they are friends and colleagues, one comes to believe (falsely) that the other has murdered his family, and so there arises a thousand-year feud that comes to a climax only when those primitive Earth barbarians build a wireless distribution nuclear power plant (in the 1980s) that provides power to their technological body enhancements, as well as their enimgmatic starship Xix, buried in the wilds of northern Minnesota.

The Long Twilight is not Laumer's best work. It's a novella padded out to publishable book length. I couldn't see this when I was 17, but now, having read countless novels and written several of my own (of which only one has seen print) I can see the seams, the bad welds, and the glued-on bulk. There's a completely untenable (and mostly unnecessary) subplot involving the US Army trying to attack and turn off the power plant, which Xix is secretly keeping running using technologies that smell perilously like occult magick. There's a forced and completely unnecessary romantic subplot. I guess for the hero to get the girl, there has to be a girl, though in this case the hero seems completely uninterested in the girl until the omniscient author forces her into Lokrien's arms on the last page.

Doesn't matter; I recall my heart pounding as a kid while I read the action scenes. I recall typing some of his paragraphs into my 1918 Underwood mill just to see what publishable SF would look like on the platen in front of me. (It looked frighteningly like my own Laumer-inspired adventures, a thrill that kept me going until I sold my first SF yarn at age 22.) I'd really like to keep the book on my shelf, as a lesson in how not to spin a plot, as much as for the bad story's nostalgia value.

Alas, there's a problem: The gum that holds the pages together and the pages to the cover dried out and cracked as soon as I opened the book. Each time I turned a page, the page pulled loose of what was left of the crumbling binding gum and came free in my hand. By the time I had finished the novel, I had a stack of entirely separate yellowed pages and the cover, which still looks great because I covered it in Con*Tact plastic back in 1969.

I'm going to have to go looking for a hardcover copy with a sewn binding. I'd also like to have an ebook version, but I don't know that I want it badly enough to scan and OCR 220 fragile pulp pages and knit them together into a PDF. I'd certainly buy an ebook if one were available.

There is an enormous amount of money lying on the floor in the form of third-shelf books that only a few crazies (like me) and completists might want. Maybe the answer is a sort of compulsory licensing for books over a certain age (25 years?) in which anyone may republish the books as long as they pay the rightsholders (Keith Laumer is now dead) 10% of the sale price. Big Media doesn't understand that they would make more money by loosening the chains on older and less popular titles, and I doubt that they ever will understand, because as I've said here on several occasions, they're really not in it for money. They're in it for the control. (Right Men only want money as long as they completely control the process that generates it.) Short of a bullet to the head, what will it take to change their minds?

July 20, 2006: Sharing a World

Over the past year, some writer friends and I have had some success creating a writers' workshop here, and in several meetings we've run about a dozen stories through the mill. Terry Blair, who writes literary fiction of the type you'd see in The New Yorker, made a suggestion that surprised me: That we should mount a workshop project in which we all write a story set in a shared world. And she wanted the world to be my Drumlins world, in which "Drumlin Boiler" (Asimov's, April 2002) was set.

I had already been discussing this with George Ewing, and had begun writing a backgrounder on the Drumlins universe so that he could explore some concepts. The idea forced me to think hard about how an imaginal world can be shared effectively. It's been tried any number of times, and I've not been completely happy in any instance. Harlan Ellison's Medea shared world was an utter botch. Janet Morris' Heroes in Hell worked better as a shared world, but the underlying concept didn't hang together very well, and a lot of the stories quickly descended to soap opera. (A few, however, were cracklin' good adventure.) The first few Man-Kzin Wars stories were well-done (especially Dean Ing's), but the material got repetitive after awhile—probably because the idea of a war between two species is a little narrow. Perhaps the best shared world that I've seen so far is Will Shetterly's Liavek, which featured an all-star cast of writers and some fairly clever concepts, though it was a sort of Arabian nights fantasy that is a tough sell for a hard SF guy like me. All of these projects were creatures of the 1980s, and there may be newer and better examples. I'm looking around for good shared worlds to learn from, and suggestions are welcome, especially if they're hard SF rather than fantasy.

I have a strategy in mind, and I figure I'll fine-tune it as we go. Here are some notes:

  1. The shared background has to be worked out in enough detail to allow a common vision of what is to take place here. I currently have 8,000 words in the backgrounder, with more to come. As our workshoppers ask questions about how things work on Drumland, I've been adding more material to the backgrounder. This includes specs of the planet, how the society there operates, movers and shakers within that society, and even maps of towns and seacoasts. And of course, there is the shared mystery of the Thingmakers, and the 1.54 X 10E77 things that they can manufacture. I'm not quite ready to release it yet, but at some point I will make the backgrounder document freely available.
  2. Writers contributing to a shared world have to show their hands early and often. Internal consistency is crucial. (This is where the Medea world failed.) Contradictions among writers' depiction of background elements and storylines confuse readers and make the whole thing a headache to read. We can strive to surprise our readers, but we can't try to surprise one another. Writers contributing have to share details of their plots and characters not only with me, but with all the other contributors, so that we can resolve the inevitable collisions by consensus and not always be tripping on one another's egos. (It may help that none of us are famous SF writers.)
  3. A shared world should have a destiny. It shouldn't just be a sitcom, or an episodic adventure. I'm going to try and guide the creative process such that all the stories point gently toward where the whole saga is going. And at some point, I'm going to say, "It's done."
None of us have ever done anything like this before, and I admit that it may not work. We're only getting started, but things are underway. I have about a third of "Drumlin Wheel" finished, and I'm working with Terry on her concept, which is coming along well and is almost certainly something none of the rest of us could have done. (I'm often delighted with what non-SF writers produce. The two Georges are working on their concepts. I may invite a couple of other non-local writers to consider a contribution. I'll let you know what happens in this space.

July 19, 2006: The Dog That Goes "Moo!"

I love this city for many reasons, but when I announced our move here, a number of our more liberal friends were very unhappy. Beyond a slightly creaky Cold War assumption that NORAD (from whose iron door I am less than one mile) is on the Russians' first strike list, the objection they raise has never bothered me that much: Focus on the Family is there. I doubt that any organization is anywhere near as abhorred on the left as FOTF, whose massive complex lies about fourteen miles north of us, at the other extreme of the city.

I am increasingly uncomfortable with FOTF's brand of Evangelicalism (and there's a separate story in this that I'm working up the nerve to tell) but mostly I cordially ignore them, as I cordially ignore most individuals and groups with whom I differ but who are unlikely to hit me on the head and run off with my wallet. Ideology is not my thing. On the other hand, Colorado Springs has become so unshakably linked with the Christian Right that I have a suspicion many tech startups are unwilling to locate here or expand here. I say that because it comes up again and again as I chat over Skype or email with people in tech: "Oh, you're in Colorado Springs. Christian country. Focus is there." Everybody seems to know, and the unspoken objection is deafening.

The tension between Focus and the culture that it loathes erupts now and then, and we're currently in the thick of another round here. For several weeks now, an advocacy group called Public Interest has been funding TV commercials and banners on street lights featuring a peculiar icon: A dog saying "Moo!" in a speech balloon. Norman, the dog, was born different. He doesn't bark. He moos. He didn't choose to moo. That's just the way he is.

It's a clever, nonconfrontational, slightly light-hearted campaign to get people talking about why gays and lesbians are what they are. Focus on the Family, however, is incensed. They see targets on their own foreheads, since the Norman campaign was created for and is currently running only in Colorado Springs. (It may be launched elsewhere in the future.) Angry letters are going back and forth in the newspapers. Conservative churches here are preaching against the campaign. City officials are catching hell for accepting the campaign's banner dollars. I'm not sure if the affair has made national news (has it?) but around here we're starting to get a little tired of it all. Focus is now launching a counter-campaign starring a dog named Sherman that asks the question: When did you last hear a dog moo? Alas, Norman is a metaphor, and not an especially strong one. (I've never heard a dog moo, but basenjis make a sound that is unlike any other noise I've heard out of any other dog. Public Interest should done a little more research and made Norman a basenji rather than a springer spaniel—but nobody asked me.)

In conversations with people here, I get a sense that in a lot of people's minds, Focus used to be on firmer ground. For a long time they were mostly concerned with stabilizing shaky marriages and opposing abortion, but the surprising influence of the gay marriage issue in the 2004 elections caused them to shift a lot of their energy to pushing a state consitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage. (The amendment will be on the Colorado ballot this November.) So what had been considered a city only moderately hostile to gays is now considered a city extremely hostile to gay rights. Enter Norman. And Sherman.

Alas, the discussion Norman and Sherman have fomented has been broad but shallow. Nearly all research I have seen so far indicates that human sexual identity is entirely genetic and unchangeable. Focus claims that homosexuality is treatable and can be reversed. Neither side seems willing to confront what I see ever more clearly in the studies: That human sexual identity is a spectrum, and between those who are clearly born gay and those who are clearly born straight are people whose sexual identities drift across the boundaries for reasons that are still completely obscure. Focus presents case studies that look like they have persuaded male bisexuals to give up sexual contacts with other males, but that's not the same thing as reversing genuine homosexuality.

None of this bothers me directly. In a democracy, different sides of an issue should make their cases before the public. What bothers me is that the presence of an assertive conservative Christian organization seems to be affecting job growth here, which I admit may be speculation, but I see job creation happening all over the place, just not here—and it makes me wonder. The town is beautiful, culture-rich, and inexpensive. Gays and lesbians are not being lynched. The animus against gays runs very a few people. Most citizens of Colorado Springs are open-hearted and willing to let Norman—as well as Sherman and everybody else—just be what they are and go on with their lives.

July 18, 2006: We're #1!

We. Colorado Springs. Our frothy and mostly useless daily paper announced that Money Magazine has named Colorado Springs as #1 on their list of best cities over 50,000 population. I haven't been able to lay hands on the magazine itself yet, but there's a summary here.

The primary factors were things like easy commutes (the city is physically small and the roads generally good) clean air and water, moderate climate, good schools, lower-than-average housing prices, and proximity to some spectacular recreation. Interestingly, although the local business environment is quite good compared to a lot of places, there isn't a lot of strong economic activity here right now, especially in the high-tech industries, except things relating directly to military aerospace. I have a couple of friends with a fair bit of experience in networking and programming who just can't find jobs, and that puzzles me. It's a gorgeous place, the living is relatively cheap for a largish city, and it's close enough to Denver so that anything you can't get here is an hour's drive north.

So where the hell are the non-military jobs?

I'm a little short on time here today, but I'll address some theories tomorrow, including some discussion of a really ugly fight going on here that most of the country isn't aware of. Stay tuned.

July 17, 2006: Library Thing

A few weeks ago I stumbled on LibraryThing, a Web cataloging site for personal book collections. In recent months I've been slowly scanning and entering books into a Win32 client called Readerware (See my entry for April 13, 2006) as a disaster recovery mechanism, and LibraryThing represents an alternative approach: Store your personal library catalog online, and it won't burn up if your house does and your laptop goes with it.

You can post up to 200 books with the free membership. I popped for the $25 unlimited lifetime membership without half thinking. I'm in the book business and it's a business expense; besides, I need to know how this thing handles tonnage. You can find my collection by looking for user Jeff_Duntemann.

Library Thing would be useful even if you could only see your own collection. But it also allows you to see what other people own, and for publishers, this can be very useful intelligence about what the market is doing. For example, one of the most popular authors among LibraryThing members is Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Anansi Boys) which would not have been my guess. LibraryThing uses the "cloud" UI mechanism, in which the point size of items in a list is proportional to some value in the database; in this case the number of copies of an author's books in member libraries. (Click here to see what I mean.) I spent a lot of time looking at the stats. Among the books that I've entered so far, the most popular among other LibraryThing members is Jered Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, with 1,318 copies in other member hands, and The Screwtape Letters second, at 1,137 copies shared.

You can enter books by hand, either by entering an ISBN or Library of Congress call number and submitting an online query, or by typing in all the information. For older books without ISBNs, this is the only way to go. If you already have your books cataloged somehow, you can try their "bulk add" feature, which allows you to hand LibraryThing a text file of some kind (typically an HTML or CSV file exported from a local database) from which it will pick ISBNs and perform automated lookups on up to three online library databases. (I chose the default set, which is Amazon US, the Library of Congress, and Amazon UK.)

The automated lookups are queued up so that they march through Amazon and the LoC at a measured rate. If the system is popular (as it was when I discovered it, due to a writeup in the Wall Street Journal) it can take several days for your bulk adds to get through the queue.

I added over a thousand books using bulk add, by submitting the HTML export files produced by the Readerware library management database I keep on my laptop. Of those thousand books, only 13 failed lookup. Two were French translations of my Degunking books that I later found on Amazon France. (Duh!) Two were remodeling books originally published in Canada that I later found on Amazon Canada. (Double Duh!) Seven were books that were in fact listed on the US Amazon database, but for no clear reason Library Thing had failed to find them. Two of the books remain unfound, even though I tried looking for them in almost thirty online library catalogs around the world. One was a Barnes & Noble reprint of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Edge of the Unknown, and the other a mostly useless book called How to Contract the Building of Your New Home.

It's still beta software, and there are some weirdnesses:

  • By far its worst problem is that LibraryThing doesn't properly list bylines on books with multiple authors. Degunking Windows is listed in their database as by Joli Ballew only, and when I tried to fix the author field by adding my name, the field automagically rearranged itself to "by Jeff Ballew and Joli Duntemann." As far along as the whole thing is, I'm amazed they haven't fixed that one yet.
  • The LibraryThing system still hangs up on me now and then, or returns peculiar error messages, especially when I try to add a book from search results returned by the Library of Congress. Beta problems, I can only assume.
  • LibraryThing doesn't seem to store book info in any sort of cache, even for immensely popular books like the Harry Potter series. Every single book instance entered into the system has to be run past Amazon/LoC, etc. all over again. At least for books carrying an ISBN, caching book data locally shouldn't be that hard to do, and would make adding books to the system hugely faster.
  • LibraryThing has no way to disambiguate duplicate author names in their own member-author program. In other words, I signed up as a Library Thing author, with a special icon and treatment in my profile. If there were another Jeff Duntemann who wanted to register as an author, our books would have to be listed together, with a manual notice that we were actually two different people. Supposedly they'll fix this; it is, after all, still beta software.
  • Some books—at least five—with a valid LoC call number don't come up in searches of the LoC. My pre-ISBN 1966 Dell edition of Intelligent Life in the Universe by Shklovskii and Sagan—hardly a book of vanishing obscurity—failed every search I could think of in every database. (Maybe the aliens kidnapped it...) Note that this is not LibraryThing's problem; even the Library of Congress's own site did not find 69-10184. Could there have been that many clerical errors in logging LoC callouts?
  • College textbooks seem not be in the online databases. I found my dad's 1941 drafting textbook, but did not find either my own 1970 college drafting or Carol's 1969 high school physics textbooks. Again, not LibraryThing's problem, but a weirdness nonetheless.

Some of my friends have asked me if it's a good idea to post the contents of my library where everybody can see it. I thought that one over carefully, and here is my response:

  • I don't have any rare books worth breaking into the house to steal. The most I've ever paid for a single book is $200, and I have already destroyed it by scanning the fragile volume in order to republish it. The binding disintegrated, and the loose pages are now in a Baggie. Not worth much anymore, I'd guess. I didn't even list it.
  • Will the nasty old gummint decide I'm a dangerous radical by analyzing my library? I doubt it. I have nothing by Marx, I don't read porn, and own none of those old Loompanics classics about picking locks and growing marijuana. I have maybe a dozen books on politics, none of them especially strident. From ten steps back, my collection suggests "harmless basement tinkerer who reads SF and goes to church."
I haven't scanned all my books into Readerware yet, so what you'll see up on Library Thing right now is perhaps half of what I own. Fiction, humor, animals, electronics, health & medicine, travel, sociology, literature, drama, and art have yet to go in, and there are quite a few books still sitting in a box without having a shelf home yet. So the experiment will go on.

July 16, 2006: From the Web Stats Search Query File

sasha brabuster
Of the Boston Brabusters, I'm sure.

are stingrays the under water animal used for clothing?

famous goodland kansas murders
Whoops. Better move to Lawrence instead.

list of sugar defusing plant manufacturers
Be prepared; exploding jelly doughnuts are rampant.

understanding dead people
They can be just so difficult at times.

fix stale gumdrops
Waste not, want not

turkey vacuum tube solar system
There's an SF story in there somewhere.

nud photos
Sorry. In Colorado, nuds are nocturnal, endangered, and hide well.

darwin fish wifi emblem
I want one of those!

home depot forklift break something
Lawsuit alert!

psychopathic mouse cursors
They curse cats violently and without remorse.

some women are ingested having sex with all animals with photos
If you spot a lion with photos, run!

July 14, 2006: Big Record Companies? Disposable.

This morning's Wall Street Journal had a short article (not available online) about major bands refusing to re-up with their labels once their current contracts expire. Artists including Prince, Jackson Browne, Pearl Jam and Ice Cube have basically told their erstwhile labels that they are still willing to deal with them—but this time on the artists' terms. This means turning down huge advances but keeping copyright and a bigger chunk of the overall take.

The article is weak for a WSJ piece, because it doesn't say much about how this state of affairs has come about. It's certainly true that radio station playlists aren't the only ways to build hits these days, as the article notes briefly and then changes the subject. The Internet builds word of mouth in ways of which the writer may not be aware, or may not want to admit, like P2P piracy. It's not just Web sites anymore.

That yee-haw doofus Garth Brooks (who soiled himself in my esteem by demanding the outlawing of used CD sales) dumped EMI, recorded some new material at his own expense, and then cut an exclusive deal with Wal-Mart to sell it to his core constituency. A doofus, perhaps, but one who apparently knows who buys his CDs, and where.

Beneath all of this change lies something that the WSJ didn't mention at all: It is getting ever cheaper and easier to create digital music, and physical CDs are no longer the only way to deliver it. (Stamping physical CDs can be done more cheaply and in smaller quantities than ever before, too.) The technical expertise required to record, mix, and cut an album has grown more common as the price of the equipment has fallen. My sister and brother in law have an entire recording studio in their basement and make decent money publishing specialty music under their Dodeka Records label.

All of this prompts one to ask: What value do gigantic record companies add to the music industry? They used to provide the immense capital investment it took to create, publish and promote new music, but as the required capital has fallen, their importance has steadily shrunk. They're not irrelevant yet (as some are already saying) and won't be until the majority of all music sales are downloads or direct CD sales. The only thing keeping them relevant is their lock on the conventional B&M retail channel, and while that will go on, the size of its piece of the overall music sales pie will continue to fall.

Ok. Now go back through this entry and swap out "books" for "music." Book publishing seems to be on much the same path as music, if not so far along here in mid-2006. Linotypes, IBM Composers, boards, waxers, and physical halftone screens are history, and have been since the early 1990s. The capital investment required to create a print-ready book image is now $2000 on the outside, and the skills required for the job are a straight-line extension of word processing. If you know Word, you're halfway to InDesign, PageMaker, or any other layout app. Printing costs have plunged due to better presses, higher productivity, and competition from overseas printers, particularly in China.

Over time, authors who tire of watching horror scenarios like The Incredible Shrinking Royalty Rate will choose the new path, releasing books as ebooks and keeping older titles in print through deals with smaller, POD-based publishers. It's already happening, and the similarities to the music business are striking. I've asked before and will continue to ask: What are big publishers actually for?

Remembering, perhaps?

July 13, 2006: Gorgeous, but Tasteless

I ran up to Denver this morning, to spend a little time drooling in the aisles at the main Rockler woodworking store and have lunch with Larry Nelson. Larry owns a firm called Software Planning, and sells VinBalance, a package for managing wineries and the winemaking process. He's also been heavily involved in the interface between Walla Walla, Washington and the surrounding agricultural community, and spearheaded the growth of the regional farm market in Walla Walla.

A lot of fruit is grown near Walla Walla, and Larry and I talked about a peculiar phenomenon that I have noticed over the past 25 years or so: Supermarket fruit has been looking better and better, while simultaneously growing almost tasteless. The best example is strawberries: They're huge, and red, and gorgeous, and so utterly lacking in flavor that Carol and I have basically stopped buying them. Table grapes are also on that path. Recent grapes have been impressively large, but very watery and lacking in flavor. (They remind me sometimes of the squishy green paintballs that I find in the gully behind our house after the local teenagers have been gaming down there.)

Apples that used to truly be delicious now simply look delicious. We don't buy the delicious variety of apples anymore because they're mealy and tasteless. The Braeburn apples we now eat are just ok, and we wonder how long that will continue to be the case.

What's going on here? Larry and I have a theory: Factory farming and mass grocery retailing select products based almost solely on how they look. One imagines that corporate megafarms don't taste their own products. Why should they? The only people who ever get within a hundred feet of the actual fruit are hirelings without any authority to steer the farming process.

There's almost no feedback loop between the consumer and the grower. The consumer's only way to register dissatisfaction is to stop buying the fruit, which (as with all such feedback-by-refusal) doesn't transmit much useful information to the growers. And because huge grocery chains are almost the only access that most people have to fruit, the end result is that people just eat less fruit.

In Walla Walla and a lot of other cities in farm country, they address the problem by bringing farmers directly to consumers in farm markets. Here's a nice article on the farm market in Reno, Nevada, which made my mouth water. Strawberries that taste like...strawberries! What a concept! Can I have some?

We're getting into fruit harvesting season here in Colorado, and I'm ashamed to admit that there's a farm market here in the Springs that I've never been to. Well, that's going to change. I've been delighted by some of the surprises I've found in locally vinted wines made with grapes grown here in Colorado. What works for the wine may work for the fruit as well. I'll let you know what I find.

July 12, 2006: Odd Lots

  • Conspiracy buffs may be interested in the contention that Hilary Clinton is a closet Republican. Horrors! Hey, are we that short of conspiracies, guys?
  • People have been sending me links to bobblehead pages. Evidently, bobblers are very big in American culture. Here's the best collection I've seen. Want John Gotti or Jesus nodding on your desk? You got 'em. Sigmund Freud? No problemo. Edgar Allen Poe? Condi Rice? They're all here.
  • Actually, I can't quite decide which I want for Christmas: The Condi Rice bobblehead or the Pope Innocent III action figure.
  • I learned the other day that big band leader Fred Waring (of Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians) popularized the blender appliance that later bore his name. The actual blender concept was invented in 1922 by a guy named Stephen Poplawski, but he didn't have a band.
  • Bigelow Aerospace has finally launched its one-third scale model of an inflatable space station on a converted Russian ICBM. Inflatables are an obvious way to create habitable space in space, and it's always puzzled me a little why NASA hasn't pursued it. (And don't say that that's because "it's a good idea" even if it's true.)
  • Steampunkers may enjoy Crabfu's Steamworks, a collection of some pretty clever steam-driven models, including a model of a steam-driven rowboat—driven by oars. (Thanks to George Ott for the pointer.)
  • Useless knowledge: Betty Boop was originally created as a floppy-eared anthropomorphic French poodle by the Fleischer animation gang, back in the early 1930s when nearly all cartoon characters were funny animals. She appeared in several cartoons as the girlfriend of Fleischer's popular Bimbo character, who was also an anthropomorphic dog. Betty grew so popular after a few cartoons that Fleischer redesigned her as fully human, then was forced to drop Bimbo because a dog with a human girlfriend suggested bestiality. By the way, you can legally download perhaps the weirdest and most totally surreal cartoon ever made in b/w. This Snow White has nothing in common with Disney!

July 11, 2006: The Uncanny Valley

Back in 2001, I saw previews of a movie called Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and my initial strong reaction was, Yukkh! That's creepy! The film attempted photorealistic human characters, and did about as well with the animation as one could do circa 2000, but many people commented that the CGI humans were a serious turn-off. Since then I've read of animators tweaking CGI human faces to make them just a little less human-looking (this was done in the Shrek movies and in The Incredibles) because when animated humans are too close to real (without quite being fully convincing) they inspire in people either revulsion or a kind of nameless dread. I've known of the effect for years, but today was the first time I knew it had a name: The uncanny valley.

Explaining the term itself may require a graph. I borrowed the one below from Wikipedia, and if you're interested in the concept I encourage you to read their very detailed article on the concept.

If you start with something as unlike a human being as a robot welder, people are basically indifferent to it. (They may correctly choose to stay out of its way, but that's a different issue.) As you move toward things that begin to resemble the human form, emotions engage and people respond more positively, especially if pains are taken to avoid well-known negative images. (The Devil, Hitler, etc.) Even odd anthropomorphic figures (think Goofy or Reddy Kilowatt) are generally well-received if they smile and don't do obnoxious things. At some point, when your representation of a human being gets close enough to photoreality, acceptance goes off a cliff, and the figure becomes creepy and disturbing. At some point further on, if the representation becomes indistinguishable from a healthy human face, acceptance rises again.

The Wikipedia article doesn't speculate as to why all this should be so. The only reason I can think of for the uncanny valley is an adaptive subconscious tendency to avoid diseased people or corpses. We are very good at recognizing real faces, and there comes a point along the continuum between a cartoon and a photo where the cartoon becomes so lifelike that this ancient machinery kicks in, and instead of a cartoon we see a face without the many subtle indications of healthy life. The dragons of the subconscious suggest zombies or mythic supernatural creatures instead, and we get low-level willies.

This is significant to me because I'm tinkering with a new novel that involves AIs being evolved within an artificial world called the Tooniverse. The AIs are initially animated as obvious, simple cartoons (think Cartoon Channel things like "Fairly Odd Parents" and further on, "King of the Hill") and as they evolve more closely to human levels of intelligence, they are given more lifelike animated human figures. The primary AI (named Simple Simon) understands the risk of coming to appear a little too human. "I don't want to actually be human," Simon says to one of his fellow AIs. "I just want them to take me seriously." This is hard when you resemble Homer Simpson, but Simon doesn't want to creep people out, either.

By the way, is it just me, or should bunraku puppets (which always seemed like high-resolution Muppets to me) be on the opposite slope of the uncanny valley?

July 9, 2006: A Different Kind of Vision

Kevin Anetsberger was kind enough to send me a sketch of what he saw in the rock beside the La Garita Arch:

July 8, 2006: A Lulu of a Problem

Boy, this is a weird one. I tried to set up an account on, Red Hat founder Bob Young's print-on-demand and ebook publishing startup, which has a lot in common with my idea of an ebook gumball machine. I can access the Web site without any trouble or delay. But any time I attempt a transaction that involves Lulu's servers, the browser just grinds and grinds until it times out. This happens with both Firefox and IE, so it isn't a browser configuration issue; both browsers allow session cookies and Javascript. I establish https connections with many other ecommerce sites all the time, from monsters like Amazon to small furniture retailers. I've never seen anything like this.

It made me nuts, and I spent an afternoon poking at the problem. I spent an hour in a chat window with one of Lulu's support people, and we parted company with neither of us the wiser. Then, on a hunch, I went downstairs and logged into Lulu from one of my lab machines. Bang! No problemo, even on my doddering old 1998 Dell Dimension. Further checking proved that I can use Lulu normally from every other machine in the house—except the best one, the one I use for almost everything. Arrgh!

So the problem really is with my primary machine up here. Windows 2000 SP4, 3 GHz Pentium 4, 4 GB RAM, half a terabyte of disk. Unloading Zone Alarm didn't change anything. Unloading Skype didn't change anything, and there's nothing else running that fools with networking at all.

I had hoped (and still hope) to publish my re-issue of The New Reformation through them, but until I can figure out why my main machine won't talk to their database servers, it's no deal. Let's just say that I'm open to suggestions.

July 7, 2006: Our Lady of the Rock Arch

Pete Albrecht, who is nominally a Lutheran, has stolen a very Catholic march on me by spotting the image of the Blessed Mother on the perforated rock ridge we clambered around on this past weekend:

Or perhaps it was just the image of St. Pareidolia, patron of artistic cracks in rocks and scorch marks on tortillas. I'm ashamed to say that I was staring right at it and never saw it. Damn.

By the way, if you want to go there and see for yourself, Bp. Sam'l Bassett looked up the coordinates and directions and sent them to me:

N 37 48.833' W 106 22.639' at about 8900 feet

To get there, take US Hwy 285 to the La Garita/County Road G exit. Go West (and a tad north) about 5.75 mi to La Garita. CRG becomes CR38A about 3/4 mile West of La Garita. Continue West about 1.5 mi to junction of CR38A and CR41G. Go Left (South) on CR38A about 4.3 miles. Go Right (due W) on CRE39 about 3 miles. Go Left and uphill on unnamed trail/road about 2.5 miles You will be at about 8700 feet, with 200 ft to climb to the arch. Behind you, as you face La Garita Arch, is Eagle Rock. Above, beyond, and a bit to the right is Eagle Mountain.

July 6, 2006: Review: Imaginary Weapons, Part 2

Many years ago, I spotted a book on a remainder table somewhere that appeared to be about...the American dog poop crisis. Really: It was a whole book about the problems cities are having with people not cleaning up after their dogs. I flashed on that book often as I read Imaginary Weapons: What we have here are one or two longish magazine articles, of the kind I enjoy reading in The Atlantic. We do not have a whole book.

This problem is related to a second weakness, which is arguably the more serious one: This book describes a symptom of a larger, broader problem: Lack of adult supervision in certain areas of DoD research. The symptom is a project that insisted on pushing ahead with a new kind of bomb when the fundamental physics were still in serious dispute. The Pentagon was prepared to spend hundreds of millions—over time, probably billions—of dollars transmuting other elements to Hafnium 178 M2 (see yesterday's entry for an explanation of what this is) before anyone could prove that the Hafnium isomer was "triggerable"; i.e., could be made to explode all at once.

Author Sharon Weinberger spends a great deal of time describing the (many) personalities involved, their eccentricities, and even their haircuts and restaurant preferences, and never misses an opportunity to show the men (for they were all male) at their worst, flaming on email, calling one another fools, incompetent, conspirators, etc. This goes on for a couple of hundred pages, and got extremely repetitive after awhile, for she basically documents the whole saga verbatim over a period of six years.

What do not get in the book are two critical pieces of understanding:

  • What precisely is a nuclear isomer, how does it differ from its corresponding "ground state" element, and why is Hafnium the one everybody jumps on? There is another nuclear isomer, of the element Tantalum, that seemed a lot less problematic to me. (It occurs in nature, and is not radioactive.) Why was no one chasing a Tantalum bomb? Weinberger touches on Tantalum a time or two as though it's obvious why generals prefer Hafnium. It is not obvious, and my suspicion is that the author was not especially interested in nuclear physics and preferred describing grown men throwing tantrums.
  • What exactly is wrong with the Pentagon's research establishment that allowed this little dog poop crisis to happen? Never did I read so much about Pentagon and DARPA goings-on while understanding so little of the underlying mechanisms. The book could have used a chapter-length layman's overview of DoD research mechanisms, especially how projects are approved and funded. What fragments of a picture I got were a horrible tangled mess. This may in fact be the problem, but it may also be the scatterbrained character of Weinberger's writing. You can't tell strictly from the book, and it is a matter of spectacular importance.

The book has its moments. Weinberger has a good sense for the people she describes, and I felt that I knew them as well as I needed to. Flashes of good, succinct writing appear from time to time, usually amidst thirty pages of borderline padding. Perhaps without intending to, Weinberger summarizes the entire Hafnium issue on page 147:

The problem with the DARPA program, according to [James] Carroll, was that it focused on just one isomer, Hafnium 178, and just one goal, low-level triggering. Carroll described DARPA's involvement in isomer research as an "impedence mismatch," a scientific term describing the result of joining two systems that have different conceptual bases. DARPA wanted a fast track, he explained, but isomer research was still at the very basic stage. "It's a mismatch between expectations and reality. That perhaps is the difficult part here."

Boy, is it ever.

Sharon Weinberger treats eccentric physicist Carl Collins far too harshly, and in doing so betrays a complete misunderstanding of the difficulties that physicists face, especially when they're intent on pushing the envelope in major ways. As much as she (somewhat sneeringly) quotes the foolishness that appeared under the banner of cold fusion, she seems not to have thought deeply about the lessons of the cold fusion debacle: The researchers may not have discovered what they hoped they had (nearly infinite and essentially free energy) but they may well have discovered something, and if that something is in fact a previously unrecognized physical phenomenon, it's worth charting out, whether it's useful or not. Similarly, Collins may well have stumbled upon something in his experiments with Hafnium 178 M2 and the dental X-ray machine. It clearly wasn't what the Pentagon wanted, and almost certainly isn't any sort of new energy source. On the other hand, if he turned up some new wrinkle in nuclear isomer physics, that wrinkle is worth chasing, simply because we don't yet know what other major discoveries down the road may depend on that wrinkle. Much knowledge is accumulated in small steps, steps that on their own may not appear to amount to much. Real scientists know this. I don't think most journalists do.

So in truth, I don't recommend the book. You can learn more by googling on "hafnium 178," "nuclear isomers," and so on.

I want to finish up with something I spotted in the book that made me grin. Sharon Weinberger turned up some (now terminated) Navy programs focusing on cold fusion. When she asked the Office of Naval Research why they had continued to support cold fusion after the rest of the world's research community had rejected it, she got this answer:

The Navy and the defense of our country cannot afford to blindly accept the status quo. When science is delegated to a narrow conventional and "normal" view of what is possible, we severely limit out ability to make huge technological advances. Large advances are made in two major ways: slow, steady progress of existing knowledge, and breakthrough concepts that challenge the scientific status quo. Both are valid. The United States enjoys leadership in the scientific and technical community because of the diversity of approaches we use to support research ranging from the private sector through the varied approaches of government funding agencies. We should all fear the day when there is a "normal" channel by which all new scientific ideas are evaluated for support.

In 1970, I spoke passionately of the fourth dimension to a Navy officer who (in contrast to some of my friends and teachers) didn't think of the geometry of higher dimensions as useless or even weird. He probably wasn't looking for experts on the fourth dimension. I suspect he was looking for smart kids who thought inside boxes a little bigger than other people. Still, I have a goofy vision of myself in a Navy officer's uniform years later, peeking into a cabinet surrounded by peculiar machinery, and exclaiming, "My God! It's full of stars!"

July 5, 2006: Review: Imaginary Weapons, Part 1

In my senior year of high school, I was obsessed with the fourth dimension. I spent most of my loose moments either daydreaming about my new girlfriend Carol, or immersed in Coxeter's Regular Polytopes. In the spring of 1970 I fielded a science fair project called "Sections and Projections of Hypersolids" that got me a silver medal at the public school system's city science fair at the Museum of Science and Industry. It also got me something else: The attention of a gray-haired admiral from the U.S. Navy, who offered me a full ride (and spending money) at any American university with an NROTC program, at the end of which time I would be a Navy officer with a guaranteed job in "technology research."

Ulp. I was not having much luck at the scholarship game, my father was on disability, and a job in Navy research would keep my ass from getting shot off in Vietnam. Furthermore, the guy was persistent: He asked for my phone number and called a couple of times, telling me that the offer would remain open. "Son, the Navy needs minds like yours," were his last words to me. I hate to admit it now, but I turned him down because I wasn't ready to go away to school, and there were no NROTC programs within commuting distance. It's been 36 years now, and I've often wondered what the hell the Navy was doing that required a breezy understanding of higher dimensions.

Having just finished Sharon Weinberger's disappointing little book Imaginary Weapons, I think I may have a glimmer of understanding.

Imaginary Weapons is about Pentagon weapons program boondoggling, and is focused almost completely on the peculiar pursuit of the mythical hafnium bomb. There is a little-known backwater of nuclear physics involving nuclear isomers, which are atoms in which the nucleus contains excess energy stored either as spin, or as (barely) metastable distortions in its shape. Generally, the particles in a nucleus are lumped together in something like a sphere, but the very occasional nucleus will be "stretched out" to the shape of something like a football. This stored energy can be spectacularly high: In every atom of the nuclear isomer Hafnium 178 M2 there lurks 2.5 million electron volts of potential energy. Three grams of the stuff contains as much energy as a ton of TNT. That sort of energy density would allow the creation of a bomb equivalent to the Hiroshima a small briefcase. Needless to say, the very concept had military mouths watering.

The problem, of course, lay in releasing this stored energy. A doughnut has an energy density four times that of an equivalent mass of TNT, but no one has yet figured out how to make doughnuts explode. Our understanding of isomer physics would suggest that "triggering" a mass of Hafnium 178 isomer to its ground state (thus releasing copious energy as gamma ray photons) is impossible, but in 1998, a physicist at the University of Texas at Dallas claimed that he had triggered Hafnium isomer atoms in a microscopic sample by bombarding the sample with a beat-up dental X-ray machine. In a manner eerily reminiscent of cold fusion, no one else could replicate the results, even using the spectacular X-ray generators at major research labs.

This didn't matter to the Pentagon, which began a several-year program to create a bomb based on Hafnium 178 M2, even though nobody apart from one cranky physicist could trigger isomer atoms to release their stored energy, and the world's entire supply of Hafnium isomer was in milligrams. (The isomer does not exist in nature and what little we have is gathered from nuclear accelerator targets, having been literally transmuted from other elements.) Imaginary Weapons describes the tension between exasperated physicists who have given the results-free research every benefit of the doubt, and the DoD hangers-on who just know that there's a bomb in there somewhere.

It's not a pretty picture. Alas, it's also not an especially good book, so don't buy it yet. More tomorrow.

July 3, 2006: Odd Lots

  • We took two cars on our trip to southern Colorado this past weekend, and simply assumed we would use our cellphones to coordinate movements. Duhh! Away from the towns there was no service. In fact, in some of the towns there was no service. Needless to say, there was no service on the dirt roads heading toward Garita Arch. Just a warning to those who may decide to caravan a road trip. Next time we'll use FRS radios, or maybe even GMRS.
  • Speaking of cellphones, Pete Albrecht sent me a link to a cell phone that has a built-in breathalizer. If your blood alcohol level is sensed at higher than .08%, it will warn you not to drive—and as a bonus, will refuse to dial any of a list of numbers that you had previously defined. (Old girlfriends?)
  • A couple of people have already asked where Garita Arch is, and if I could tell you I would. Next time we'll have a GPS receiver with us. I even own a reasonably decent one, and didn't bring it. I'm a disgrace to gadget freaks everywhere...
  • Last night a half-mile-wide asteroid named 2004 XP14 passed about as close to Earth as the Moon does. If that thing hit us, we would be in (literally) a world of hurt. It was drizzling here so I didn't try to spot it, but even if the night had been crystal-clear, identifying an 11th magnitude starlike point among thousands of other 11th magnitude starlike points that really are stars would have been a serious challenge, even in my big scope. Now if we could just land a nuclear engine on that thing and and nudge it into an Earth orbit, the stuff we could build with it!
  • I used to think that science fiction conventions were a little specialized and peculiar. (I ceased thinking of SF conventions as peculiar after I accidentally happened upon a Church of the SubGenius convention back in the early 80s.) How about a Rocket Belt Convention? I'd want one of those if they went a little farther on a charge of peroxide. Maybe a hafnium engine? (Whoops, I wasn't supposed to say that. Hafnium engines are totally imaginary. They are. Really. Don't be fooled. Nuclear isomers cannot be harnessed. Totally impossible. Fnord!)

July 2, 2006: QBit the Mountain Climber

The weather turned out a little better today than yesterday, and after checking out of the cabin this morning, we went looking for La Garita Arch, a natural rock arch in the area. It was way back off the paved roads, and we passed it by a couple of times before we spotted it by noticing that the morning sun was shining right through what looked like a mesa. The opening in the rock was a couple hundred feet above the road, worn through an ancient lava ridge about fifty feet thick that ran across the land for at least a mile.

Carol had hurt her knee slightly the previous day, and didn't feel up to the climb, so she stayed by the car with QBit while the rest of us (including Yoji) scrambled up the rock trail to the arch. QBit didn't care for this one bit, and was immediately straining at the leash to follow us. I yelled down to Carol to let him go and see what he would do, expecting him to get up the trail a little way and then begin barking for us to return and pick him up.

Hah. QBit dashed madly up the trail at a full run, leaping up the rocks like a mountain goat, and then sat down on a little ledge beside me as though he did it every morning before breakfast. The last hundred feet of the ascent was not a slam dunk, even for a guy like me with superb balance. But when David, Terry, and Yoji continued the climb up to the arch opening, QBit abandoned me and followed them, bounding up the rock face with neither difficulty nor any apparent fear.

His first action on reaching the opening was to locate a dwarf pine and pee on it, proving to God and everyone that this was his rock arch, and no other bichon frise had better come up here and try and challenge him.

The view from the arch was spectacular; the photo below gives some impression of just how big and how high the formation was. Those are full-size trees on the desert floor below.

If QBit showed any hesitation in the adventure it was on the way down, and being afraid that (drunk with his earlier triumph) he would do something audacious but stupid, I ended up carrying him down the first hundred feet of the trail from the arch, for which he did not seem happy.

We spent some time in Monte Vista, having lunch and getting a flat fixed, before heading home in the midst of another rainstorm. The rain is badly needed, and I didn't mind. We had a wonderful time, and I now know that I have the baddest bichon frise in all Colorado. Of course, he's filthy and needs a bath (I'm sure he still has steer crap between his toes) but he has forever broken the conventional wisdom of fuzzy little white lap dogs who eat dainties off silver trays.

July 1, 2006: Running Into a Cattle Drive

Yesterday morning ten-ish, our friends David and Terry called to say that they had nailed a two-bedroom cabin in southern Colorado for a couple of days (at short notice) and...would we like to share it with them? Uhhhh....yeah! We had assumed nothing of value would be available anywhere for the holiday weekend, and hadn't even thought about going anywhere. So we threw some stuff in the 4Runner, and about 5 PM we headed south on I-25 for Foothills Lodge in South Fork, Colorado. South Fork is about fifty miles north of the New Mexico border, a little west of the center of Colorado. It's on the south fork or the Rio Grande (hence the name) and is a relatively dry area of low, pine-forested mountains.

Foothills Lodge is unusual in that they allow dogs. David and Terry had their basenji/lab mix Yoji with them, and we brought QBit. Yoji has known QBit since QBit was 12 weeks old, and the two of them get on famously. (50-pound Yoji will actually let QBit shove him away from his own food bowl, a little piece of QBit impetuousness that would otherwise be an invitation to mayhem.)

The weather was a little gray and occasionally drippy this morning, but South Fork lies in the midst of some beautiful country, and we decided to get out and see a little of it. Lightning actually chased us out of the woods a little after noon, but we had an interesting morning poking around in the San Juan National Forest.

This is cattle country, as we discovered before we even parked the car along a creek. Beef cattle were wandering around on the road, looking dolefully at us through the car windows. We saw 1000-pound steers nibbling scrubby grass on 60° hillsides, and scruffy little calves drew QBit's puzzled attention.

We parked the car along the side of a small creek, and ran the dogs around on the meadow. QBit wasted no time tramping with all four feet through several deposits of fresh cow poop (it was so new and loose it wasn't even formed into the canonical "pies") and I had to dip his paws in the ice-cold creek to clean him up before I'd let him back on the 4Runner's leather seats.

We had been wondering all morning who the cattle belonged to, but by noon we got our answer: Six cowboys on horseback came down a side-trail, yipping and hollering just like they do in the movies, driving annoyed-looking cattle ahead of them. (The sound effects seemed so peculiarly aligned with movie Westerns that I wondered for a moment if we had wandered into a film shoot.) Other cowboys and cattle were converging on the meadow from several directions, with Australian shepherd dogs at their heels, yapping at the steers and keeping them in line. Bringing up the rear were a couple of older folks in Jeeps and pickup trucks pulling horse trailers. The cowboys (including a couple in training who might have been as old as 11) drove the massed cattle across the creek and up the side of a mountain to graze (as we were told) on some meadows there.

A middle-aged woman in a pickup truck stopped for a bit and spoke to us. Two families owned the cattle and managed them within the national forest, which is completely legal and for which they pay the government a fee. They still ride horses because the cattle go places where Jeeps can't go. These will not be feedlot steers, and I suspect most of the meat from the small herd (about 400 head) will be eaten locally. We buy occasional steaks from local herds at Ranch Market in Colorado Springs because they have little fat and almost zero chance of mad cow infection, and the meat is wonderful, if pricey—hence the "occasional." Small herds like this are probably the last vestige of historical grass-fed cattle husbandry in Colorado, and we felt like we were looking back in time a little. Shortly after the cowboys and cattle vanished up the mountainside, a thunderstorm rolled over the summit, and we decided to head back to the cabin for some lunch.