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.
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
to public schools, provided the schools meet the following rather
- 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
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
- 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
- How to engage in the scientific method.
- Finally, the lost disciplines of courtesy, etiquette, and respectfor
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
Next time, we'll speak of funding research with that hypothetical
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 yearsI
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 usefulwhy didn't anybody
send me that as a
HAX when I was still publishing a magazine!)
24, 2007: Odd Lots
- A chap emailed me to ask if I still had the listings for one
of my older booksand 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.
Fort Is Alive and Well in Baton Rouge.
Italian guy wrote a 384-page SF novel on his Nokia cell phonewith
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.
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
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 Lulu.com
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
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!
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 toobut 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
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 extinctionfor the genre. That having been said, my
template on SF is unforgiving, culturally retrograde, and presented
- 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.
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
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 Lulu.com
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,
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.
blog even suggests that the photographed copy was a deliberate
PR stunt. No waythere are too many Right Men and Right
- The larger problem with Harry is that monster retailers are
using him as a loss-leader to bring people in the door, sometimes
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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...
9, 2007: Ratatouille
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 anybodyanybody!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
- 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
- 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.
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.
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 terabytesthough 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.