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July 29, 2007: Odd Lots

  • My hosting service disabled exec() server-wide the other day, and without exec() my installation of Gallery is mostly useless. I can't install new photos nor modify existing ones. Sectorlink doesn't really have much in the line of suggestions, but I have to wonder what else doesn't work. Moving my photos to another online service will be a lot of work and I'd prefer not to. Gnash.
  • I uploaded another Carl & Jerry free story the other day. This one is about a hot-dog cooker that Jerry comes up with, and is the earliest mention (February 1959) that I've seen of cooking hot dogs by running house current through them and treating them as resistance elements. I've since see this done a number of times (mostly at SF gatherings, natch) and there was actually a commercial product called the Presto Hot Dogger that did it in the Seventies.
  • There is a very nice VHF FM receiver project by Charles Irwin in the July, 2007 issue of Nuts and Volts. The receiver uses an MC3362 receiver chip, plus an LM358, a CD4066, and an LM386 for audio. Much of the additional complication presented by the LM358 and the CD4066 is to provide squelch; in the similar receiver that I built in 1995, the squelch function was built into an obscure low-power Motorola audio amp chip, the MC34119, and there were thus only two ICs in the whole receiver. The author does not offer parts kits, but he makes the PC board files available here.
  • Pertinent to my note on "meta-education" yesterday, see Michael Covington's lecture "How to Write More Clearly, Think More Clearly, and Learn Complex Material More Easily," which is precisely what I was talking about. This needs to be a book. I mean, this really needs to be a book!
  • I'd be curious to know if anyone has used the XStandard Editor and if so, what your reactions have been. My HTML editor is getting very old now (1999) and it does not generate sufficiently clean HTML for my liking.
  • Does lead poisoning lead to criminal activity? Here's an interesting piece from the Washington Post that suggests it may. Thanks to Michael Covington for the link.

July 28, 2007: If I Had a Billion, Part 4

(Continuing a thread I began in my July 13, 2007 entry.) It's interesting to tote up the responses I've gotten to my challenge of playing the "If I had a billion..." game. Basically, if you had a huge lump of money and all the material goods you wanted (and many of us seem to be either close to or already at that point) what would you do? For the most part, people would fund either research or initiatives in education. Here's a proposal from one of my correspondents that I will quote in full, because it echoes shorter concepts that others have sent, and I endorse it myself:

Substantial grants to public schools, provided the schools meet the following rather novel requirements:

  • No more than 500 students in a school.
  • No more than 30 students in each class.
  • All discipline administered by human beings; no mindless "zero tolerance" policies.
  • Declaring certain things to be intolerable is OK, but guilt and punishment must be decided by accountable human beings. (We are not training people to live under fascism -- are we?)
  • No racial quotas. The school must not even keep track of the color or ethnicity of the students. (Time to get past the 1960s, folks! Don't send me to a school that doesn't meet my needs just because you need my color in the statistical mix.)
  • If 2 school on the same grade level within 25 miles of each other get grants, then all students who are eligible to attend either one must have a free choice between the two of them.
  • Limited extramural sports. (You can have all the intramural sports you want, provided that no student who wants to participate is turned away.)
  • A physical education program with a real component of education, not team sports.
  • A high level of community involvement.

    Actually, I think public schools need to be replaced with a voucher system, but some attempt to humanize them along these lines [shown above] would be beneficial. Who was it that said the public schools are the only thing in America that is run on the Soviet system?

The answer to the final question is: Lots of people, and add me to the group.

My own education initiative is something I've been thinking about for a long time. Call it metaeducation, and it would be targeted at students in the last two years of high school. I see it as a summer program, but it could work as well on Saturday mornings throughout the school year. The hard work would be to create and document the curriculum and methodology, but once the program were created, it would be franchised to groups that wanted to implement it locally, with the bulk of the nonprofit's proceeds funding race-blind but income-sensitive scholarships to the program. Here's what the program would teach:

  • How to study in school. Not how to ace tests. How to learn from the material you are presented. (If you learn the material, you will ace the tests.)
  • How to teach yourself new skills and subjects without attending a formal course.
  • How think critically.
  • How to read for retention. (This includes indexing, as the most rigorous form of "taking notes.")
  • How to research.
  • How to frame and write a coherent argument. (We used to call this "rhetoric.")
  • How to engage in the scientific method.
  • Finally, the lost disciplines of courtesy, etiquette, and respect—for other students, and in fact for all people no matter who they are or where the interaction takes place.

For reasons unfathomable, few of these things are taught in any organized way in American secondary education. The program would be a supplement to, and not a substitute for, a conventional high school curriculum.

Next time, we'll speak of funding research with that hypothetical billion.

July 27, 2007: Weekly World News Stolen by Alien Gerbils!

I'm not sure why they chose to alert me, exactly, but several people wrote to say that the Weekly World News was being shuttered after 28 years—I guess Bat Boy will have to get a job as a greeter in an all-night Wal-Mart somewhere. Will it be missed? I'm not sure. It's not like there's a weirdness shortage out there; consider pro wrestling, which is what the WWN has always reminded me of, in a textually synesthetic sort of way.

I wouldn't even mention it here except my grade-school friend Rich has long created a sort of found art out of WWN headlines pasted together in freeform collage. Typical is the one shown here, or at least as much of it as would fit on my scanner. WWN readers clearly love aliens, the Pope, and astrophysics, which is probably why I got the word from so many quarters. I don't much like aliens, but hey, two out of three ain't bad. (And knowing when I'm about to burst into flames could someday prove useful—why didn't anybody send me that as a HAX when I was still publishing a magazine!)

July 24, 2007: Odd Lots

  • A chap emailed me to ask if I still had the listings for one of my older books—and when I found the book and cut open the back-cover pocket to get the CD out, I suddenly realized that it was not a CD but a 5 1/4" diskette. I no longer have a 5" drive in the house. I don't even have one on The Mouldering Pile of Old Hardware in the basement. Chances are the disk has already succumbed to magnetic entropy, but it was a reminder that some bridges have really and truly been burned.
  • Charles Fort Is Alive and Well in Baton Rouge.
  • An Italian guy wrote a 384-page SF novel on his Nokia cell phone—with his thumbs. Now, my home-grown 7-finger typing style is legendarily eccentric (I've never taken a typing lesson in my life) but this guy has me beat all hollow. (Thanks to Bill Higgins for the link.)
  • I wrote a story in high school about a cubical planet, but if you prefer dodecahedrons, here's how to cut and glue your own pseudoglobe, in any of the regular polyhedrons plus a few of their relatives. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the pointer.)
  • Also from Pete comes a pointer to a cool little shipping-rates calculator.
  • I'll come back to the Billion Game as soon as my schedule permits. Lotsa material!

July 23, 2007: Lulu's Missing Piece

I just ordered a hardcover copy of Kinsley Amis' Spectrum 5, which was one of the first SF anthologies I ever bought with my own money (albeit in paperback) in 1966. The paperback fell apart years ago, but someone's mention of Walter Miller's "Crucifixus Etiam" brought the Spectrum series of anthologies to mind. We could do with more like that.

Roger Elwood pretty much killed the original multi-author SF anthology market single-handedly in the mid-Seventies, something I've touched on before and won't recap in this entry. At Clarion in 1973, my penchant for mentioning my home town in my fiction prompted someone to suggest I steal a march on Elwood and sell an anthology called Great Science Fiction About Chicago.

The bitch of it is, I'd buy that. (Anybody remember Costigan's Needle?)

Elwood didn't quite get down to the level of Great Science Fiction About Waffle Irons, but he came close, and his publishers lost their shirts. Back in 1973, a publisher had to put a certain amount of capital on the line to print a book. You couldn't sell enough books about alien waffle irons to earn out the press run. Take out the press run, and many things become possible, like my reprint books of Carl & Jerry stories, which comprise a pico-niche if there ever were one. We've been talking about selling pico-niche books via POD for a few years now, and systems like make them not only possible but practical and even (in some cases) profitable. To support pico-niche multi-author anthologies, such systems need one more thing: The ability to split the author share among several people, automatically.

I learned today that Lulu has such a feature in beta, and my yeee-hah! was audible down the street. The gist is that Lulu will eventually be able to split the publisher's share of the sale of a POD book among the publisher and any (reasonable) number of authors. I would enjoy collaborating with other SF writers and even editing a couple of original anthologies, but splitting the money can be a daunting amount of fuss and paperwork, and the writers always suspect that the editor and/or publisher is holding out on them. If Lulu did the money-splitting (with everybody on the author list having equal access to the online sales reports) such difficulties would basically go away.

Reprint anthologies like Spectrum still present the problem of chasing down rightsholders (and Lulu isn't going to be much help there) but given such a feature original shared-world anthologies and theme anthologies could make a limited and very welcome comeback. I'd like to see a theme anthology of stories about humanity's first experiences with stardrives, and would be willing to act as editor. A little further off the mainstream would be a fantasy collection I'd call Bangs! You're Dead! though I'm not sure how many people would understand the title. (The people who did understand it would probably buy it.) Pico? Sure. Possible? Almost. Lulu, would you puh-leez get that thing finished!

July 21, 2007: If I Had a Billion, Part 3

(Continuing a thread I began in my July 13, 2007 entry.) One of the unspoken rules of the "If I Had a Billion..." game is that whatever you propose be at least possible. The game is about money, not magic. Sure, I'm for world peace and universal brotherhood too—but in proposing the game I'm really challenging people to anchor themselves in reality and remember that money can make certain dreams real. Invested as a nonprofit foundation with a 3% return, a billion dollars would earn $30,000,000 per year. So if you could work within a budget like that to make a dream or dreams real, and what dreams would you choose?

The dreams we would choose say a lot about the people that we are. Playing the game in the back of your head is actually a sort of psychiatric self-analysis. I've learned (or maybe remembered) a little about myself in the last week or so since this came up.

Here's an example: I really love editing magazines, and with a billion dollars to play with, I could create and edit a magazine that could run basically forever, even if nobody ever read it. On the other hand, if nobody reads a magazine, does it really exist? Yes, I'm a dreamer, but I decided after some reflection that I'm not a waster. I could create a butt-kicking Delphi magazine, but its success would be dependent on something that I absolutely do not control and is not moving in my direction. I like to think of myself as the Scarecrow, but I'm really the Tin Man. I don't think I'd have the heart for it.

Then I had a better idea: I could create a magazine devoted to hard SF, the kind that ruled the SF world until the world went all nuts on us in the late 1960s. I've caught flak for saying this many times before, but I think it's still true: SF is genre fiction, not literature. Trying to graft literature into genre is one sure path to extinction—for the genre. That having been said, my template on SF is unforgiving, culturally retrograde, and presented without apology:

  • All stories must anchored on ideas. Ideas are fundamental. No idea, no sale.
  • Plot matters. To be a story, something must happen, somebody must learn something, and the yarn must end with a satisfying ring of resonance.
  • Characterization must be done well or not at all. Cynical, bathetic chewing-on-the-curtains is not characterization.
  • The (rigorously) known must not be violated.
  • Cautionary tales must be presented with excellence, and sparingly.
  • Fantasy may be published, but must be presented as a form of alternate physics, with all the internal consistency and limitations that real physics presents.
  • Extra points will be given for action and a sense of adventure.
  • More extra points (and perhaps money) will be given for a belief in progress and the triumph of the human spirit.

My physical vision is something like Omni minus the porn king influence and the UFO department; perhaps closer to The Atlantic or Harper's in size and design. Authors and artists would be paid very well. There would be a science department, to include not only speculation and news-from-the-front-lines but also something hands-on like the old "Amateur Scientist" column in Scientific American.

Although my magazine would be competing with the other SF mags, I would add an interesting wrinkle: For every story published in a competing magazine that fit my editorial template, I would buy a full-page ad in that magazine at their full rate-card rate, promoting the other work of the author of the story in question. No mention of the magazine paying for the ad, not even a "paid for by..." unless the other publisher insisted. The idea would not be to promote my own magazine, but to promote hard SF itself, and especially the people with the guts and the inspiration to write it.

No, I do not have a name for the magazine, and that may be deliberate. If I named it I think I'd want it too badly, which was an insight that startled me perhaps a little more than it should have.

Next, I'll summarize some of my readers' solutions to the Game. After that, well, maybe a few more of my own.

July 20, 2007: Odd Lots

  • I'll get back to the "If I Had a Billion..." game shortly. I've had more mail on this than anything since I spoke of grounding, and it's made me think even harder about the issues involved.
  • My sister Gretchen is going in for major surgery in a couple of weeks, so Carol and I are heading back to Chicago to stay with them for awhile and share the motherhood function while Gretchen can't. I mentioned to Gretchen that I may be changing diapers for the first time in my long life, and Carol began laughing. May? May? There is no "may..."
  • We first landed on the Moon 38 years ago today. My SF writer's intuition is that we will not go back without major advances in nanotechnology. I'll expand on this insight someday. We need to master the Very Small before we will make much headway against the Very Big.
  • My bookstore on has been serving me very well in my republication of the Carl & Jerry stories, but they have some other interesting options, like full-color calendars. To test it out, I created a QBit 2008 calendar. Still a little pricey, but it's an idea (one-at-a-time custom calendars) that I myself would not have had. I created it literally for myself (and possibly as gifts for relatives) but if you want one you can certainly order one.
  • It's All Harry's Hallows Eve, and the gremlins are out in force, somehow filching copies out of the locked-down distribution channel, and photographing them on somebody's grubby carpet before knitting the photos together into a monster PDF that is now bouncing around the P2P circuit. The publishers are spitting and sputtering their slightly silly rage about it all, while (I'm sure) inwardly acknowledging that the resulting news items represent a fortune in free publicity. This blog even suggests that the photographed copy was a deliberate PR stunt. No way—there are too many Right Men and Right Women involved.
  • The larger problem with Harry is that monster retailers are using him as a loss-leader to bring people in the door, sometimes with a retail price so low it's lower than the wholesale price offered to smaller booksellers. This is insane, and one reason I think that giving manufacturers some ability set minimum retail prices might be a good thing. Might. In the meantime, I may be the only person in the Western world who will reliably not read Deathly Hallows. Each time I've begun one of the other books, I soon think: Egad. Soap opera. Hey, when is Ugly Betty on again?

July 17, 2007: If I Had a Billion, Part 2

So why a billion? (See the series I began with my July 13, 2007 entry.) Simple: I had to push the discussion beyond the how-many-of-my-cousins-can-I-buy-cars-for territory. Most of the time I've played the Game, it came up as we were driving with family or friends, and saw one of those billboards along the Interstate that tells you how big the Powerball jackpot is. When you're only talking about five or ten million dollars, there's a very clear conceptual fence around what you can imagine. (Admittedly, lotteries have become a much bigger deal than they used to be, and we now see jackpots going into nine figure territory regularly, to as much as $200M, but that's rare.) Also, you don't get it all at once. As the only way most ordinary people can ever become that rich is through a lottery, the conventional picture of sudden wealth is as something that comes to you in modest monthly chunks over a period of many years. (Note to self: Don't win the lottery when you're in your 80s...)

We need to get past that to make the discussion interesting.

I am encouraged by the responses so far in that they have not been about Stuff, and for the most part not about personal aggrandizement. As for Stuff, well, I might buy a good telescope, a vertical milling machine, and a medical-quality binocular microscope...but that's about it. (Ok, maybe an RV. But at these gas prices, sheesh!) I have almost everything I ever dreamed about, and the best of it (Carol, for example, and my sister) have nothing to do with money anyway. What I want you to imagine is the situation after you've paid off your mortgage, added that family room, bought two acres by a lake, set up trust funds for your family members, and maybe picked up a Segway. Twenty million down...nine hundred eighty million to go. Whew.

As my high school friend George Hodous said yesterday (with his characteristic brevity): "I'd throw away my alarm clock." Yup. And that's when the real fun (and the real work) begins.

More tomorrow.

July 13, 2007: If I Had a Billion, Part 1

There's a verbal entertainment that I call "If I had a billion..." though it sometimes comes up as "If I won the lottery..." You've probably played it here and there; it's easy and more fun than telling ghost stories, though ghost stories have their moments. The idea: Suppose a whole great honking wad of money fell into your lap, earned or unearned (remember The Millionaire?) without restriction. Tax already paid. In the bank, burning a hole in your spreadsheets. What are you going to do?

Let's play. Portfolio balance: 1 billion USD. Let's hear your plan. I'll share my own in a couple of days.

If you like, post your answer in comments on my LiveJournal mirror. If you'd prefer not to fool with LJ, just send me an email, and I'll post the more intriguing responses in a future entry.

July 12, 2007: Odd Lots

  • Here's a new concept weapon that suggests the first step toward the smart bullets that Peter Novilio was ducking in Chapter 1 of The Cunning Blood. How hard could it be to give the damned thing a CCD eye and steerable fins?
  • I managed to get a new free Carl & Jerry story uploaded. Grab it here. This one is interesting since I think the gadget the boys build is workable, though much depends on its calibration. If anyone has tried this I'd love to hear about it. (I see some patents of such a device from 1970 onwards, which Frye anticipated by at least ten years.)
  • Many have written to tell me that the alien grafitti I spotted on a freight car a couple of weeks ago (and described in my June 28, 2007 entry) is Aurebesh, a completely synthetic alphabet from the Star Wars universe. Many writeups are online, though my favorite is from WookiePedia, for the name of the site if nothing else. (Thanks to Thom for the pointer.) Here's another, from Vince Weaver. That same tagger has done other work. (This last from Bill Roper.)
  • As for what the graffito is supposed to say, well, something like "Le Force / Jaamo Fett / slc rock". The last line, set below the rest, is obscure.
  • There is an album cut from the 1970 vinyl album Aliotta, Haynes, and Jeremiah (but not the CD!) called "Leaving Chicago." Like the song says...

July 9, 2007: Ratatouille

Saw Pixar's latest Brad Bird outing, Ratatouille. I was skeptical going in; the trailers had been underwhelming and there just wasn't the level of geek expectation that had hovered over The Incredibles and Shrek, or even Cars. Also, the formidable Aardman had tried and mostly failed with Flushed Away earlier this year, and I had begun wondering if rats just make movie directors stupid. (Does anybody—anybody!—remember Rock and Rule, or The Secret of NIMH? And why do rat movies seem, like fundamental particles, to always come in pairs?)

My reaction, after a few days to think it over, is positive but a little peculiar. What we have here is a decent first-contact story between two alien races with only one thing in common: food. A common rat living in the country outside Paris has been graced with superior senses of taste and smell, and would love to tinker in the kitchen of the country house where he, his family, and friends live in the rafters. Alas, the French granny who lives in the house is heavily armed and dislikes rats, and after a slapstick confrontation that leaves their comfy colony in ruins, Remy the rat (voiced by Patton Oswalt) and his family set out for Paris by way of the storm drains.

Up to this point it's conventional kid fare; sardonic rats doing conventional ratty things while being chased around by irate humans. But once we get to Paris that all changes. What looked to be a kiddie action-comedy at the outset goes moody and buddy film-ish: Remy soon finds himself in a fancy French restaurant, where cartoon logic allows him to befriend the garbage boy, Linguini. (Lou Romano.) Linguini would like to be a five-star chef but has no talent for it; Remy has the talent but the bad karma to be a rat. Communication is a challenge, but once they understand one another, Remy and Linguini achieve a level of cooperation that borders on symbiosis, and reminded me a little of the relationship between Peter Novilio and the Sangruse Device in my novel, The Cunning Blood. The biology of the process is obscure, but is applied with consistency, and if you can willingly suspend disbelief, it just works.

I won't descrbe the rest of the plot, which is part soap opera, part cartoon foodie porn, and part Discovery Channel documentary on how fancy French restaurants work behind the scenes. The art is stunning, reminding me in many places of Maxfield Parrish, and the food and kitchen paraphernalia are rendered with accuracy achieved by sending the designers and animators to a high-end culinary school. It's just gorgeous, and the drawings of Paris powerfully evoke memories of my own visit there in 1981. (Why the hell haven't I ever gone back?!!?) The cartoon humans have been carefully maintained in cartoon territory, thus keeping us completely out of The Uncanny Valley. (The food, on the other hand, was scarily realistic.)

Overall, gentle good fun and a visual feast. There were a couple of issues:

  • Linguini and the rats are nominally French, but sound either Midwestern American or New Yawkish. Linguini might as well have been from Nebraska. All the other humans, by contrast, speak with ethnic accents. It's jarring, especially in a film focusing on a cornerstone of French culture, and might with some skill have been handled with French accents throughout. After all, Eva Gabor's Bianca in The Rescuers had Eva's characteristic Hungarian accent.
  • The film can't quite decide if it's for kids or adults, and given the topic, it might not be capable of both. There is no "adult" content (sexual humor, naughty words) but kids are not and can't be foodies, so much of the substance of the film will just shoot past them. There is a kid-action set-piece toward the end that accomplishes little (Remy dashes madly around Paris's canals with Chef Gusteau's will in his mouth, trying to get away from Yosemite Sam ringer Skinner) that blows the film's mood and throws us completely out of the story.

But don't let that stop you. It's beautiful, fun, and (remarkably!) it takes its time. This is the least manic cartoon film I've ever seen, edging out The Iron Giant in patience while it develops its characters and theme.


July 4, 2007: The Balance of Freedom

I stood out in the dusk just now, with the fireflies rising above the midwestern lawns and the sounds of fireworks everywhere around me, and pondered what we're trying to do here. America is actually a search for balance, and somewhere between anarchy and tyrrany is the sweet spot where there is recognition that the individual and the common good both exist and both matter crucially to one another. We always will argue about where lie the boundaries of the common good, and even along which axis one might choose to plot it. But the sweet spot is there, and in reading history it certainly seems that we have come closer to it than any other nation since the dawn of human governance.

I don't think we're in decline. (If we were, do you think everybody on Earth would be so anxious to live here?) We may gain or lose in specific areas, but we have that difficult-to-define balance. There is something subversive about the American Dream. We have the sweet spot. We will be here for awhile. Count on it.

July 2, 2007: Another Damned "Barrier"

I don't know why we don't learn from past mistakes. I discovered recently that there is another of those idiotic storage "barriers" that we run into from time to time by not being willing to afford another six or eight bits of address space, or else the guts and brilliance to design a system that has no capacity ceiling.

This time it's SD cards. The biggest SD card I have is 1 GB, which lives in my Kodak pocket camera and stores (as you would imagine) a great many photos. I noticed on my last trip to Best Buy that 4 GB SD cards were down to $70 or so. My Thinkpad X41 Tablet has an SD slot, and I got to thinking that a 4 GB SD card could hold a lot of CD rips to play on long car or plane trips. Something caught my attention, however: The logo on the SanDisk packaging said "SD HC." I hadn't seen that before, and when I went digging I found it means "high capacity." Fair enough, but then I found that most SD cards are limited to either 1 GB or 2 GB, by virtue of a 32-bit byte-oriented addressing system on the card itself. Devices designed for the original SD card standard probably won't recognize an SD HC card, and I wasn't willing to pay $70 to find out whether mine do or not. There's a decent discussion of the problem on Wikipedia.

Even the 2 GB size can be problematic, and the only way you can be sure that a given SD card will be readable in a given SD reader is to stick to 1 GB. This problem is poorly understood because the SD hardware spec is far from open (due to Big Media's paranoia that someone will crack the SD card's built-in copy protection machinery) and the SD industry association has been loath to admit it.

SD HC uses a sector-based addressing system that potentially allows capacities up to 2 terabytes—though for some reason most summaries claim only 32 GB, which we'll be hitting in half-past no time. So one has to ask: Why are we still designing storage hardware with ceilings at all? Some of it is obviously inherited OS limitations, and some a desire to trade storage performance for capacity (bigger cards read and write more slowly) but I'm guessing some of it is just squeaky cheapness in engineering departments. What I can't imagine is that anyone still thinks that "nobody will ever need XXX whateverbytes." (Will somebody puh-leez park Esther Dyson somewhere that she can't do any more damage?) Storage will find its uses at whatever capacities we create. Bigger storage will make things possible that we never thought of before, because we didn't have bigger buckets to put things in. All we have to do is make the buckets, and ideally make them without painting ourselves into any more technological corners.