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More AI Text Generator Freakiness

I tried it again. This time, I used a much more detailed prompt, which I’d written years ago (2014-ish) about a bottle that used to have a genie in it. The genie had been freed, leaving behind…a bottle. And what self-respecting genie would ever live in a non-magical bottle? So a nerdy guy buys a supposedly magical, genie-less bottle at a curio shop. The bottle, it turns out, has a trick: Ask it a question, and it answers.

Alas, the bottle has issues of its own.

I gave the prompt to Sudowrite, and let it follow its nose. Now, the way Sudowrite works is that when you ask it to write a section, it gives you two text blocks, both of which are based on the prompt. You choose the one you like better, and add it to the text that follows the prompt. Then you ask it for another section.

After a couple of go-rounds, I realized that in one of its generated text blocks, Sudowrite was putting together a sex scene. No sale. I chose the other block, which still had enough innuendo to make me uncomfortable. I sensed that in a sense it made a deranged sort of sense: I had described the protagonist as a lonely nerd. So! Toss him into bed with an imaginary girl who (the AI made graphically clear) had all the required female parts.

I stopped there. The first Sudowrite story I posted was in (somewhat) bad taste. I don’t make Obama jokes. Nor do I make Mossad jokes. I might make golem jokes, at least if the golem is the good guy. One reason I tried Sudowrite again today is that I wanted to see if bad taste was a habit or an outlier. It’s starting to sound like a habit.

Here’s the story. Everything up to the first rule is my prompt, taken verbatim from my notes file. I will someday use the concept (of a genie bottle without a genie) in a Stypek & Tuggur adventure, a prequel to Ten Gentle Opportunities. Everything after that is Sudowrite. Still a bit surreal–but if there’s a surreality slider somewhere in Sudowrite, I haven’t found it yet.


Djinn and Tonic

“What’s this?” Chuck Bialek asked the Gizmoids shop owner, and waved the weird, bulbous crystal bottle in the air over the counter. As best Chuck could tell, it was half-full of dirty water.

“Genie bottle,” said the old man. “But somebody let the genie go, so no wishes. Still, if you shake it and let it sit for a minute, it’ll tell your fortune. Used to be a hundred bucks. You can have it for fifty.”

Which meant it was probably worth a buck and a half, tops. Still, Chuck’s grandma had left him almost a million dollars, half of which was now in stocks. The rest was, well, for fun. He’d had a magic 8-ball when he was a kid. It was fun. This might be a reasonable facsimile.

Chuck laid a fifty on the counter, tucked the bottle in his canvas bag, and went back to his flat. After stuffing down a bratwurst and some Cheetos, he shook the bottle hard and set it on the kitchen table. Little by little, the dirt in the water settled out, leaving behind…words.

I miss my genie, read the words. Ha! He wondered how it worked.

“I wish I had a Jeannie to miss,” Chuck said. The nerd business was fun, but…lonely.

Chuck shook the bottle again, and waited.

Trade you a Jeannie for a genie, the dirt-words said.

“Deal,” replied Chuck.

 


His phone rang the next morning.

“This is Jeannie,” a voice said. “I’m with a Mr. Bialek, right?”

“Yep,” said Chuck.

“Trade?” asked Jeannie.

“What do you have in mind?”

“Wishbone,” said the genie.

“I wish you wouldn’t keep doing that,” said Chuck.

The Jeannie-thing giggled. “Make a wish,” she said.

Chuck thought for a bit. “I wish you were wearing a bikini.”

He hung up, and was on his way to the coffee shop when he heard a voice behind him.

“Trade?” asked the genie-Jeannie-thing.

“No!” shouted Chuck, and fled. He might be a nerd, but he was still the last straight guy in the world who hadn’t seen the Girls Gone Wild videos and had no intention of doing so.

He stumbled into the coffee house, and ordered a single-shot espresso with a splash of vanilla syrup. He had just opened a browser window and was trying to find a porn site that didn’t offer a free trial when he heard a voice behind him again.

“Trade?” asked the Jeannie-spirit.

“Are you nuts?” he said. “That’s the second time.”

“Make a wish,” said the genie.

“What does this do to your magic?” asked Chuck. “I mean, every time I make a wish, you get a day older.”

“Rhymes with night,” replied the genie. “So I’m immortal, just like I always wanted.”

“What happened?” asked Chuck. “I mean, most genies are pretty nice, but they had to have their masters’ best interests in mind.”

“My master was a fraternity boy. Couldn’t make a wish without prefacing it with ‘Yo, Genie…'”

“Oh,” said Chuck. “My apartment’s on the third floor. You can stay in the spare bedroom.”

“You’re a nerd,” said the genie. “We could never live together.”

“Right,” said Chuck. “So I need to make a wish for you to be you again. With unlimited magic.”

“I can do that,” said the genie.

“And I’ll need a million dollars. Are you listening?” asked Chuck.

“I don’t have to,” replied the genie. “From now on, I’m invisible to you.”

“This is going to get tiring,” Chuck told his computer screen. “I wish you’d figure out how to be a girl again.”

Will genie make the coffee? will genie make the toast? will genie make Christopher Hitchens read my manuscripts?

Will genie have sex, or merely masturbate?

Will genie remember to take out the trash?

Will genie notice her glasses are on her head?

Will genie give me a million dollars,

even if she does have the power?

Yes, genie will do all of these things.

Will genie kick my ass down the stairs

if I ask for more wishes?

 


Heh. Fersure.

If You Give an AI a Writing Prompt…

Ok. Fasten your seat belts. I am giving an online writing AI a test drive, using my free trial of a website called Sudowrite. I gave the AI a writing prompt from my crazy ideas file, a mere handful of words that I wrote down a very long time ago (I think in the ’90s) and never went back to. Here’s the writing prompt:

St. Louis Blues

“Take me to St. Louis,” said the cruise missle in the thick of the bramble patch.

Howie Hinkle blinked, and put down his machete. “How’s that?” he asked.

“Take me to St. Louis,” the missle repeated.

Howie howled. “Paw, dammit, there’s an old water tank in here and it’s talkin’ to me!”


It’s not a great deal to go on, but that was the idea. With a bare hint of a concept, what would Sudowrite do? I could have written some of it myself, or edited it, but I wanted to see what the damned thing could produce solo. 100% of the writing after the prompt was done by the AI. I had hoped to avoid the literary equivalent of Salvador Dali. Well, too bad. Hello Dali…


St. Louis Blues

“Take me to St. Louis,” said the cruise missle in the thick of the bramble patch.

Howie Hinkle blinked, and put down his machete. “How’s that?” he asked.

“Take me to St. Louis,” the missle repeated.

Howie howled. “Paw, dammit, there’s an old water tank in here and it’s talkin‘ to me!”

His father, Howard Hinkle Jr., took him for a look. The old tank was rusty and damaged, with a huge gash in it. Penetrating the tank from inside was a cruise missle, with a single eye and a fin on top. A single missile launcher poked through the gash.

“Who the hell are you?” Howie Jr. asked. “Why do you have a cruise missle?”

“My name is Shiloh,” said the voice. “I am a cruise missle, and I will ask you one more time to take me to St. Louis.”

“I don’t know where St. Louis is,” said Howie Jr.

“I will find it,” said Shiloh. “I am a golem of the Mossad. If you do not help me, I will call my brethren. We will clear the bramble from the road, and from there, we will find you.”

“Y-you can’t do that!” Howie Jr. said.

“If you do not take me to St. Louis, I will call my brethren, and we will take your woman, and we will bring her back to Tel Aviv. We will use her to breed a generation of human-missle golems. You can raise them with your own spector. They will be of your tribe, and they will spread across the land.”

Howard Hinkle Jr. swallowed, and wiped the sweat from his brow. “If I take you to St. Louis, will you let us alone?” he asked.

“I will,” said Shiloh.

“Deal,” said Howie Jr. “Let’s go.”

Hours later, a police car rolled up, and several officers got out. One pulled Howie Jr. aside.

“Which way did he go?” he asked.

“Er- he went that way,” Howie Jr. said, pointing.

“We appreciate your cooperation,” said the officer.

“Say,” the officer said, “was that your grandma that was in the hotel room with you?”

“Uhh, she’s my wife,” said Howie Jr.

“Doesn’t look like a 43 year old woman, honey,” said the officer. “What’s your name?”

“Howie, honey,” Howie Jr. said.

“Yeah, that’s what he said,” the officer said.

A week later, on the steps of the White House, President Obama announced the success of the St. Louis negotiations. Behind him, an Israeli flag hung. Beneath it, a Mossad agent clapped.

“What a complete dick,” said the agent. “He really thought he got one over on us, didn’t he?”

Shiloh’s eye blinked, and his fin wiggled.

Sudowrite, Egad

I got wind of an online AI thingie called Sudowrite this morning. It’s a sort of writing engine that takes a piece of writing you’ve started and then runs with it. I’ve always been interested in AI, including AI creativity (“The Steel Sonnets,” “Sympathy on the Loss of One of Your Legs”) and used to play around with Eliza back when Eliza was young and hot. Well, here we are, in 2022. The supermarket is fresh out of Soylent Green, but by gully, Sudowrite is here, waiting for me to get stuck on something and yell for its help.

What I did was not quite that, exactly. For my first test I gave Sudowrite the initial few paragraphs of my weird fantasy short story, “Whale Meat.” Then I told it to go off and do its best to continue the story. First, the text from the current version of the story, which is published in my book Cold Hands and Other Stories. After the second horizontal rule, behold Sudowrite’s run with what I admit was a very peculiar football.


Sitting on a cold bus-bench at night-west I wished I had never been born a witch. I had just killed a man and Mara wanted whale meat. But I am on the canvas. I am not the painter. Creator forgive me. We had to stay somewhere. It would have been in the park with the ice if Lennie had not looked in my eyes in the public library and half-snerfed my pain.

There is no word for Lennie now. Years ago he would have been a hippie. Longer ago, a beatnik. Further back into time’s fog, a bohemian. Head. Weirdo. I don’t know what people call them now. Freak, perhaps. But he knew we were tired and homeless, and told us to stay with him.

His apartment was a hole. I was too exhausted to snerf him. He gave us hot coffee and a blanket and we slept on ragged foam rubber with the roaches. My dreams floated in hunger, tormented by Mara’s request for whale meat. She told me without words. I snerfed the picture in her head, a gray sea-mountain blowing steam from its nostril above moonlit swells.

I woke from restless dreams in a sweat of fear and anger. Some part of me never sleeps, and knew Mara was in danger. In yellow candlelight Lennie was bending over Mara, knife in his hand above her belly swollen with James. His eyes were slits and he chanted a language I never learned. I snerfed him. Some bad acid (is it still called acid?) was eating away at him and leaving only insanity in its wake. Snerfing him gave me a grim glimpse of the future: He would kill Mara and James in seconds. The knife began to circle for its last time, like a live thing in his shaking hands.

I had to time-opt. The universe ground to a slow halt around us while I dug up power from my heart-place, and zotted him. Lennie’s poor head shorted out like power lines blown away in a windstorm, with sparks and shrieks of inner agony.


His blood froze in his veins, his skin burned and turned black, his body dropped like a puppet with its strings cut.

I pulled Mara and James from the bed, and backed out of the stinking room, stumbling into the street, breathing deeply of the winter air. We hurried away past the sleeping city, three in a row. I held them in a circle of toil’d air. The sad lights of the city slid behind. We were two hundred miles away before Mara spoke.

I don’t mind you killing Lennie, I snerfed. He would have killed us.

I was just defending myself, I snerfed.

So were the people in the Warsaw Ghetto, Mara snerfed.

I walked faster. She didn’t snerf me.

The river was frozen solid. I cut off a section of the ice, and chopped it into chunks with the edge of my mind. I piled the chunks


Does this work? Dunno. I admit I was curious where Yonnie piled the chunks of ice, but it only gives you so many words at a time. Sudowrite half-understood my made-up word “snerf,” which is a witch-power, essentially telepathy. I forgive Sudowrite for not knowing that James was still in Mara’s uterus, where he’d been for five years. (Witches are pregnant for seven years, and James still has two years to go.)

Now, this isn’t the fairest of tests. I’m going to dig around in my notes files for an opener, ideally one I abandoned for some reason, and then go back and forth with Sudowrite to see if the one-and-a-half of us can actually finish a story that doesn’t read like a Salvador Dali painting looks.

I’ll let you how it goes.

SASM Crashes on “Section” in a Comment

As most of you know, I’m grinding along on the fourth edition of my book Assembly Language Step By Step, updated to cover x64. I’m using the SASM IDE for the example code because it provides seamless visual debugging using a front-end to gdb. Back in 2009 I created the third edition, and incorporated the Insight debugger front end for visual debugging. A month or so after the book appeared, Insight vanished from the Linux world. I tried a lot of debuggers and editors before I discovered SASM. It’s treated me very well.

Until today.

Now, I’ve been programming since 1970, in a lot of languages, on a lot of platforms, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Finding those mistakes is what debugging is about. Today, I was working on a short example program for the book. When I finished it, I clicked the Build button. It built as it should. I needed to single-step it to verify something about local labels, but when I clicked the debug button, SASM crashed. As Shakespeare would have put it, SASM died and gave no sign. The whole IDE just vanished. I tried it again. Same thing. I rebooted Linux. Same thing.

Puzzled doesn’t quite capture it. I loaded another example program from the book. It built and debugged without any trouble. I loaded example after example, and they all worked perfectly. Then I copied the source from the malfunctioning example into a file called crashtest.asm, and began cutting things out of it. I got it down to a start label and a SYSCALL to the exit function. Still blew SASM away.

Most of what was left was comments. I did a ctrl-X to cut the comment header onto the clipboard. Save, build, debug–and it worked perfectly.No crash, no errors, no problemo.

Soooooooo…….something in a comment header crashed the IDE? That would be a new one. So I dropped the comment header back into the file from the clipboard and started cutting out lines, one by one. I narrowed it down to one comment line, properly begun with a semicolon and containing no weird characters. The line that crashed SASM was this:

;         .bss sections.

I cut out the spaces and the period. No change. I cut out “.bss”. No change. I was left with the word “sections.” On a hunch, I lopped off the “s”. No change. Then I lopped off the “n”. Suddenly, it all worked.

SASM was crashing on a comment containing the word “section.” I verified by deleting the line entirely and typing it in again. Crash!

I stared at the damned thing for a long time. I loaded a couple of my other examples, and dropped the offending comment header into them. No problems. Twenty minutes later, I noticed something: In crashtest.asm, the fragment of comment header text was below the three section markers:

section.bss
section.data
section.text

; section

Now, in my other examples, the ones that didn’t crash, the comment header was above the three section markers. So I went back to crashtest.asm, and moved the comment header to the very beginning of the file, above the section markers. Suddenly everything worked. No crashes.

WTF? I assembled the offending crashtest binary from the command line without trouble. I loaded it into gdb from the command line and messed with it. No trouble.

I wrote this entry not for answers so much as to provide a report that other SASM users can find in search engines. There are things about SASM that aren’t ideal. Sure. But I’ve never seen it crash before. I’ll see if I can send the crashtest.asm to the people who created SASM. I’m sure it’s just a bug. But it’s the weirdest damfool bug I’ve uncovered in a whole lot of years!

Review: Tangled

TangledBoatScene - 500 wide.jpg

Everybody knows the story: A girl with magical golden hair is kept in a tower by her supposed mother, who somehow climbs up and down the girl’s hair to access the tower. There are a lot of variations, but as with most fairy tales, a clever screenwriter could do a lot with that.

Disney did.

Carol bought me some DVDs for my birthday, including both Cinderella (1950) and Tangled (2010). I’ve always liked cartoon movies, and those were two that we didn’t yet have in the cabinet. We watched Cinderella first. It had been a lot of years since we’d seen it, but I want to say my mother had the VHS tape and I saw it regularly as a young man. The next night, we watched Tangled. We’d seen it in theaters back in 2010, but I wanted to compare how animation had evolved across 60 years.

Wow.

Not that this was a surprise. Cinderella is good fun, but for the most part it’s a funny animals movie. Neither Cinderella nor the prince have much in the line of personalities. The side characters like her stepmother and stepsisters, the king and his grand duke, and all the chateau’s animals steal the show. I suspect that’s because Cinderella and the prince are supposed to be realistically drawn, whereas the others are caricatures. Realism in animation is hard. Caricatures, by contrast, are a snap.

Which brings us to Tangled. It may not be Disney’s masterpiece (my vote on that score is still for Fantasia) but of all the princess films it’s by far my favorite. It has a warmth that the other princess movies try for but mostly miss. The minor-key masterpiece “Let It Go” from Frozen is a remarkably bitter item if you read the lyrics, and a certain chill permeates the whole story. Even The Little Mermaid, as good as it is, depends heavily on its minor characters like Sebastian the crab and its heavy, Ursula.

With Tangled I think we see (at last) true mastery of CGI animation. Rapunzel’s hair is dazzling. This shouldn’t surprise anyone; her hair is what makes the story happen. Disney, in fact, had to develop rendering software specifically for hair. They nailed it, and Rapunzel’s hair might as well be another side character in the story. (There are many more side characters, most of whom are well-drawn yet caricatured ne’er-do-wells.) What surprised me the most was the subtlety of the facial expressions of the main characters Rapunzel and Flynn/Eugene, big-eye characters though they be. (The big eyes keep us out of the uncanny valley, I’m pretty sure.) Cinderella’s face had three or four different expressions. Rapunzel’s face flowed smoothly across a whole spectrum of emotions. Even her pet chameleon Pascal (great name!) could show emotion without speaking a single word. At some point I think the animators were showing off: Rapunzel is barefoot for the whole film, and her feet are animated realistically, right down to her toes.

There are a couple of funny animals, especially the hero horse Maximus, who at times thinks and acts like a dog. The animals, however, do not steal the show. What steals the show are the subtle and dazzling backdrops, especially the scenes with the film’s core motif, the candle-lofted flying lanterns. If you’ve never seen the film, you can see the lantern scene during the big love song “I See the Light” on YouTube. I consider that song, hands-down, the best love song from any Disney animated film. I could easily sing Flynn’s part about Carol.

None of this is to dump on Cinderella. It was the best Disney could do in 1950, and I’ll see it again for the mice alone. But Tangled represents something that animation has been working toward in fits and starts for more than a century: an emotionally engaging fantasy world full of startlingly beautiful things. You may have to mellow out a little bit to enjoy it to the fullest; it’s not an action film at heart. So if you can stream it or buy the disc, pour yourself a glass of wine, kick back and just let it take you.

Highly recommended.

Odd Lots

  • Here’s a longish research paper from the NIH National Library of Medicine exploring studies of the effects of light at night (LAN) on various body functions. One of the most startling is the degree to which night work correlates to obesity and Type II diabetes. Less clear but more concerning are links between LAN and certain cancers. The message appears to be: Sleep at night, in the dark. Carol and I do that, and have all our lives.
  • Hating the Other evidently heightens activity in our reward centers. The late Colin Wilson explored the issue, and claimed that in modern society we have to give ourselves permission to hate the Other…but once we do, hating the Other is delicious and hard to stop. This explains a lot about tribalism in modern politics, 90% of which is about hating the Other–and an important reason why I don’t write about politics.
  • Virginia Postrel has a related article on her Substack, about the role of what she calls “purity” and its relation to cancel culture. She mentions Gavin Haynes’ notion of a “purity spiral,” which I think nails the whole purity business. It’s an effort to outbid others in pursuit of an unattainable ideal. It is thus more evidence supporting my notion that idealism is evil.
  • I’ve always wondered why music in a minor key sounds sad, spooky, or creepy. Here’s one of the better online essays on the subject.
  • I include this (slightly) related item because it asks a question I’ve never heard asked before: What is the most evil chord in music? I would guess it’s the chord that runs around with a chainsaw, cutting treble clefs in thirds, and playing hob in a minor key.
  • I wonder how I got to be 70 without ever hearing about raccoon dogs, which are neither raccoons nor dogs. They’re an interesting, albeit invasive, species of canid found in the Far East. The Japanese call them Tanuki, though I don’t recall them coming up in conversation when I was in Japan in 1981.
  • Speaking of my 70th birthday, my writer friend and collaborator Jim Strickland brought a Cabernet Sauvignon to our dual birthday party on July 16. I tried it and found it…not bitter. That was a first in my wine experience, granting that once I tasted a few bitter specimens, I basically stopped trying them. The wine in question is from Daou, vintage 2020. About $20 at our Kroger-affiliate supermarket. Quite dry, but no oak, which spoils all the other flavors for me..
  • Well. Ever heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” played on several disemboweled scanners and piles of 5″ floppy drives, plus the occasional phone modem? Here’s your chance.
  • In case you don’t yet have enough interesting things to read, here’s the Smithsonian’s history of the hard hat.
  • Back in June, people in San Francisco reported that anchovies were falling from the sky. People did not report anyone running around the city’s streets holding a pizza and hoping for free fish.
  • Hey, this was evidently a banner year for Pacific Coast anchovies. My guess is that with no one putting them on pizzas anymore, their depleted populations have rebounded.
  • After using it since 2005, LiveJournal has canceled my account there. I don’t think anybody was reading it anyway. It was a mirror, and I have better backup schemes now.

53 Years Side-By-Side

Jeffand Carol - 7-31-2022 - 500 Wide.jpg

Carol and I met 53 years ago today, in my church basement in Chicago. Our mutual friend Jackie Ropski introduced us (she was in my grade school class and went to Carol’s high school) and what I now call slow magic happened. We didn’t hurry. We were smart kids (Carol had been double-promoted past fourth grade) and we had the crucial intuition that love grows out of friendship. So we became fast friends, and then let the slow magic do its work at its own pace.

You who have been reading me for a long time know the story of hoiw we met. I won’t repeat it today. What matters is that the magic continues. The photo above was taken last Thursday, at a sizeable air B&B house we rented so Carol’s family could come down for a week and not try to cram eight adults and two little kids into our own quirky but hardly enormous abode. We had not all been together since the end of 2019. It was the first time I had met my nephew Matt’s younger daughter Kate, now almost two. His older daughter Molly is about to start school. Conscious of the passage of time, Carol’s sister Kathy hired a professional photographer to come out to the house and do a photo shoot. In groups, couples, alone, and all together, we took a collective snapshot of the family as it stands now in 2022.

A quick aside: The photographer was terrific.She is Teresa Thalaker, and Arizonans who need a photographer should consider her.

We splashed around in the pool, celebrated both our birthdays, ate maybe a little too well, played Scattergories, laughed a lot, watched Disney movies with our grand-nieces, and reveled in the magic of a family reunited after a period of our history that most of us, I suspect, would like to forget. I saw love at work everywhere around us, among us, and between us.

And that ol’ slow magic is still at work, as I know every morning that I open my eyes and see Carol beside me as though for the first time. We have never been closer, now 53 years on our way to forever, as I like to say. Thanks to Jackie, who helped strike that first spark between us that set the magic in motion, and all those who have since shared our journey with us, including those who have now moved on to God’s ineffable realms. Love works and love wins. Take our word for it. We’ve been there, are there now, and will always be.

The First Total Solar Eclipse I Didn’t See

Fifty years ago today, I didn’t see my first total solar eclipse. And thereby hangs a tale.

I had just turned 20. I was a college sophomore. Although I tinkered with electronics now and then, my primary passion (apart from Carol) was astronomy. (Ham radio was another year off.) I don’t remember at all who in my inner circles originally had the idea, but as ideas go, it was huge: We would all convoy 1200 miles around the south end of Lake Michigan, across the State of Michigan, and then across a great deal of Canada, to reach the path of totality, which was damned near at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River.

We called it Project Moonshadow, under the influence of the well-known Cat Stevens song of the same name and era.

Some of my friends had cars. I had a car, but it was a 2-door sedan that didn’t lend itself to lugging my ginormous telescope anywhere. I prevailed upon my parents to do a temporary car swap: my 1968 Chevelle for my father’s 1970 Rambler station wagon. We’ve become a lot more cautious as a culture since then. I doubt I could have pulled it off had it happened today.

But happen it did: Four cars carrying ten hapless amateur astronomers and a lot of handmade gear got underway before the crack of dawn on (I think) July 7. I had discovered CB radio earlier that year, and persuaded my convoy colleagues to equip their cars with radios and antennas. So it was Sundog, Houston, Gaspain and…I forget my friend George’s CB handle. I was Sundog. I believe Gaspain was a play on Gaspe, the name of the peninsula that the Sun’s umbra would cross a few days later. Houston, well, I’m pretty sure it was because of that evergreen catchphrase: “Houston, we have a problem.”

That name was…peculiarly…appropriate, as I’ll describe a little later.

Five of us had belonged to the Lane Tech Amateur Astronomical Society as high schoolers. One was my best friend Art, whom I’d known since kindergarten. One was Ellen, a girl Art and I knew from our church. The names of the other three I’ve simply forgotten.

Moonshadow Group Cropped 1972 - 500 Wide.jpg

On our first day on the road, we made it to the outskirts of Toronto. I was nervous about passing through Canadian customs with a huge aluminum tube strapped to the top of the Rambler, but the officer had evidently seen a fair number of telescopes heading east already, and grinned as he waved us through. We camped, we cooked, we slept, and the next morning we roared off again, this time to (I think) somewhere near Quebec City. The final leg took us to a campground in Cap Chat, Quebec, where we had reserved a few campsites. There was lots of room, good facilities, and gorgeous summer weather. The landscape was rolling hills and pine forest, and down a gnarly slope, the St. Lawrence River.

Cap Chat Campground 1972 - 500 wide.jpg

I boggle that I have as few photos of the adventure as I do, and how crude those photos are. (How quickly we have forgotten the Age of Film…) I also have to admit that most of them will not let go of the sticky pages of the photo album they’ve lived in for the last thirty or forty years. So the ones you see here will be the ones I could pry out of the album.

The morning of Monday, July 10 dawned bright and clear. The telescopes had been set up the day before. We tinkered and aligned and adjusted and got everything ready to rock. After that, we simply sat around and waited. First contact came, and we cheered. Solar filters and cameras were ready. As minutes passed, the bite out of the Sun’s disk grew larger and larger.

Jeff and scope at Cap Chat 1972 - 500 wide.jpg

But then–damn!–clouds began to roll in from the west. We saw most of the partial eclipse. We had, however, already seen a partial solar eclipse, right at home in Chicago on March 7, 1970, when we were still high schoolers. This time, totality was the whole point of the adventure.

By 45 minutes before totality, the sky had almost completely clouded over.

We got some photos of the partial phase. And we saw a strange thing as totality happened: The undersides of the clouds got very dark. Once totality was over, we sat around and moped. The next day we packed up for home.

We went home by another way, to borrow from an excellent James Taylor song of the same name. I was so annoyed by missing totality that my memories of the trip back are sparser than those of the trip out. We crossed the Gaspe Peninsula, bored our way south across New Brunswick, and then drove the entire length of Maine. I believe we stopped at a beach just north of Boston, where I touched the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. Sparse, except for when we were burning our way west across Ohio, and one of the ball joints in Ernie’s venerable early ’60s Chrysler New Yorker gave out. Ernie got the vehicle off the pavement and out of traffic. Then he keyed his CB mic: “Houston, we have a problem.”

Weirdly, I don’t recall in detail how we solved the problem. We got a towtruck to pull the Chrysler to a service station, and they replaced the ball joint. The rest of the way back to Chicago occurred without incident.

We did our best, and the failure of Project Moonshadow was no fault of ours. I consider it a coming-of-age adventure, since we got four cars and ten people to the mouth of the St. Lawrence and back, and didn’t lose more than a ball joint.

And an eclipse.

Ahh, well. I’ve since seen three total solar eclipses, including the fabulous one down in Baja on July 11, 1991. Win a few, lose a few. The trip was fun, and had other advantages: I got tired enough of CB that I started working on getting my ham radio license. I enjoyed the company of my friends. And I began learning how to deal with adversity. That may have been the biggest win of all.

But damn, the fifty years since have gone fast!

Good-Bye Guidestones

Somebody blew up the Georgia Guidestones last night. “What the hell are the Georgia Guidestones?” you might (reasonably) ask.

Ha! Exactly the point I’m about to make.

Ok. Here’s the short form: Back in the late ’70s, some rich person or group managed to persuade the premier Georgia marble quarry and monument builder to cut out five 19-foot-tall marble slabs (plus a capstone) and carve a sort of New Age Ten Commandments onto the stones in English, Spanish, Hebrew, Hindi, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Swahili.

This was no small project. The point man behind the Guidestones was one Robert C. Christian, a pseudonym that he demanded never be connected with another name. He had truckloads of money and spent it liberally. In 1980 it was complete. The land had been purchased from a local farmer and was eventually deeded to Elbert County.

Here’s what’s on the stones, in case you (reasonably) don’t care enough to google it:

  1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
  2. Guide reproduction wisely – improving fitness and diversity.
  3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
  4. Rule passion – faith – tradition – and all things with tempered reason.
  5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
  6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
  7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
  8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
  9. Prize truth – beauty – love – seeking harmony with the infinite.
  10. Be not a cancer on the Earth – Leave room for nature – Leave room for nature.

It was in the news for a little while. ’80s New Agers went nuts for it. Then, little by little, the Guidestones were more or less forgotten. I read about them in the early 80s in one New Age book or another, then didn’t see anything significant about the stones until I read this morning that somebody tried to dynamite the damned things, and mostly succeeded.

There’s more details on the stones themselves here, if you’re interested. I did enjoy the somewhat goofier entry in The Creepy Catalog a little more.

Like most weird things, it has a low-profile fanbase who have been endlessly arguing about whether it was the Freemasons or the Rosicrucians or the Priory of Sion or maybe Ted Turner or Shirley MacLaine behind it. It’s been called satanic. It’s been called Roman Catholic, mostly because of the name R. C. Christian. Reaction to the stones in some quarters has been spectacularly unhinged–read the Creepy Catalog article to see what I mean.

The obvious thing to be taken away from the history of the guidestones is that they have accrued a lot of enemies, and eventually, one of those enemies would be tempted to strike back. The inscription is the sort of syrupy New World Order nonsense that was very hip back in the ’80s. Sure, it’s all upbeat and idealistic in a let’s-all-sit-together-and-sing-Kumbaya sort of way. Everybody be everybody’s friend, ok? Let’s all abandon our native languages and join our high school Esperanto club! Let’s all guide our reproduction…er, wut? There’s a word for that: Eugenics. Been tried. Millions died. Balance personal rights with social duties? This means, historically, that there are no rights, and social duties are forced on ordinary people by some ruling elite with all the guns.

In other words, the usual deadly Marxist claptrap. That, I think, is why the stones have been mostly forgotten. Reading the inscriptions again made me groan. Easy for you to say, Mr. Christian. If I were to read them too often, I would giggle.

Now, some odd thoughts:

  • Keeping secrets is hard. Especially huge, expensive secrets. I find it suspicious that the responsible entities have never been outed. There are theories, mostly tinfoil-hat stuff, but no hard facts.
  • Supposedly, Mr. Christian and the banker he worked with communicated via mail. Letters from Mr. Christian were always sent from a different place. So…where did the banker guy send his letters to?
  • This was all done during a period now 40+ years in the past, and according to Mr. Christian, planned 20 years before that. My guess is that most of the insiders are long dead. Who’s keeping the secrets now? There are either second-generation insiders keeping secrets, or they took the secrets to their graves.
  • Or…was the bombing a publicity stunt?

Think about it: Just like your elders, you spent your life and all your heavenly idealism putting this thing together without revealing whodunit. 40 years later, the whole shebang is an asterisk in some book on the backroads of Georgia. Honestly, I think more people have heard of the Mystery Spot than the Georgia Guidestones.

So what better way to get people talking about the Guidestones again than to create a conspiracy to knock them down? #guidestones is trending on Twitter now. Supposedly local government knocked the other stones down a few hours ago to keep them from falling on feckless tourists. Also supposedly, the cops fingered a perp, though about that I see nothing firm.

But here’s the deal: People are talking about the Guidestones again! Social media is making its message immortal. I consider it a terrible waste of good granite, but it’ll be in the news for a few days until the next mass shooting or Congress impeaches Trump again. Given the silliness of the whole business, that might be the best that the shadowy Guidestone conspiracy can hope for.

BTW, the Guidestones were not the American Stonehenge. That honor goes to Carhenge, which I visited with Carol and some friends when we drove to Alliance, Nebraska for the 2017 total solar eclipse. I’ll tell you this: Nobody is gonna knock that down anytime soon!

The Other 70s

70 today. Yeah, hard to believe. When I was 17 (1969) I found it difficult to imagine being 48, which was the age I’d be when we ushered in a new millennium. Moon colonies? Sure! We’d come so far so fast. How could we not? Having experienced the much-remarked phenomenon of time going by faster the older you get, I remember thinking back in 2000 or so that I would be 70 before I knew it.

Now I know it.

I have only one complaint: I won’t be around to see what great things happen over the next fifty years. I’ve said several times that the best thing about being 12 is that you’re not 13 yet, and the really great thing about being 14 is that you’ve already been 13. 13 was not my favorite year. The good thing about being 70 is that everything from 13 up until today has allowed me to put 13 in perspective, which I did while I was getting dressed this morning. And now, having put it into perspective, I intend to quietly forget about it.

In my view, the best birthday present is…the present. Sure, I could do without social networking and people whose highest aspiration is to be outraged about something new every day before lunch. And I have gripes about Amazon, but Amazon has allowed me to get a lot of books into print at a reasonable cost, something that simply couldn’t be done before 2005 or so–and never as easily as now. Smartphones are so good that we chose not to have a landline when we moved back to Phoenix in 2015. I continue to boggle at the sorts of things one can look up on a smartphone, from local weather radar to where traffic is congested between where I am and where I want to go.

No matter how bad the politics is (and it’s pretty bad) I’ve been able to keep myself from giving it power over me. I don’t do tribalism. The closest I come to a tribe is my circle of friends, now broader and more diverse than it ever was back in the creaky old 20th Century. We survived Woodrow Wilson, easily the most evil President evah. We will survive the one we have now, and whoever comes after. Politics is not worth the ulcers and heart attacks that are its foremost products. I simply do not partake. If I look younger than I am, that’s certainly a contributing factor.

I live in a benign climate (ok, it was 107 today; let’s call it mostly benign) in a quirky but comfortable house, with the woman I have loved now for 52 years. I have 75 feet of wire and an engineered ground, plus a low-band rig I’ve been using since 1995. I have a biggish swimming pool, which helps take the edge off the mostly benign days that occur pretty regularly this time of year. (I don’t have to shovel heat. So there.) I’m hard-pressed to name five things I want and don’t (yet) have.

The days are passing quickly. That’s nothing new. The real challenge is to summon the personal energy to accomplish things with the days that I have left. L-methyl folate wasn’t the solution, alas. I’m still looking. I’m reasonably healthy, trim, get my sleep, and am deeply loved. If I can’t consistently write a thousand words a day, well, I’ll write what I can and call it a win.

I look back across my 70 years, and remind myself that I know who I am and what I’m good at. All else will unfold as time and genetics permit.

Thanks to all of you for being my friends, and for the birthday wishes I haven’t entirely caught up on yet. As birthdays go, 70 is a good round number. 71 won’t be nearly as round, but every bit as welcome. Good luck to all and keep in touch!