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Music You’ve Heard But Can’t Name

Leroy Anderson came up in conversation recently, and I remarked that his orchestral compositions are a perfect example of music that everybody’s heard but (almost) nobody can name. When you hear an Anderson piece, you think, Sure, everybody’s heard that! But then you waste a minute or two trying to remember what it’s called. And you fail.

There are exceptions. Anderson wrote “Sleigh Ride,” and although you may not remember the name of the composer, you damned well know the name of the song.

I’m not sure what Leroy Anderson’s most-heard but least-named piece is, but I’d wager it’s “Fiddle Faddle.” (If you like ants, here’s a video of ants walking around to “Fiddle Faddle.” Don’t watch it if you don’t like bugs. Fits somehow, though, doesn’t it?) Second place may well go to “Blue Tango.” with “Forgotten Dreams” close behind. A lot of people know the name of “The Syncopated Clock,” but fewer, I think, could name Anderson as the composer.

My personal Anderson favorite may not be quite as well-known (It only made it to #180 of the Billboard annual tally–in 1953) but if you’re among the 50+ crowd, you’ve definitely heard it. And the sound effects pretty much give it away. My grandmother gifted me her huge cast-iron Underwood typewriter in 1962, when I could barely lift it myself. I pounded on it for six years, until my godmother bought me a Smith-Corona electric in 1968. The Underwood Standard #5 hammered out a lot of my juvenalia during its tenure, but I’m pretty sure that it could not smack the platen anywhere near fast enough to do justice to Anderson’s borderline-manic “The Typewriter.” This guy tries pretty hard, though with a much smaller typewriter.

Which leads me to wonder: How many people these days have ever actually heard a manual typeriter, much less used one?

As for un-nameable music, Leroy Anderson had no lock on the concept. I think a lot of people have heard at least portions of “The Light Cavalry Overture” without knowing what it was. You’ll have to listen for a couple of minutes to get to the familiar part. But when you do, you’ll know it. It’s become a metaphor for slogging doggedly along, and in truth I like the other parts better. Ditto Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld Overture.” You have to get about seven minutes into the work, but, then, yes, you’ve heard it a hundred times.

Any others come to mind?

Rant: If It’s Not Aliens…Then What Is It?

If you’re anywhere in the greater nerd universe, you’ve doubtless seen recent reports of Navy pilots spotting objects zipping around the sky and sometimes diving into the ocean. The Feds have declassified three videos of unidentified thimgamajigs doing their airborne calisthenics in the vicinity of US Navy fighter pilots.

So what is a reasonably sane person supposed to think about this?

UFOs as a phenomenon are not a new thing. It’s older than I am, and I’ll be 69 in a few weeks. Early on, the mythos crystallized around the theory that such objects are spacecraft (or aircraft) created by and piloted by intelligent beings from some other star system. There was (and still is) big money to be made on alien-based entertainment. Independence Day is one of my all-time favorite movies. The aliens myth (and I’m speaking in a Campbellian sense of the word “myth” here) is strong. I’m an SF writer. I should be a big aliens guy. I’m not.

I’m actually a Rare Earther. There are so many possible terms to the Drake Equation that I’m pretty sure we as a species are a vanishingly unlikely fluke. There are either hundreds of millions (or more) intelligent species in the universe, or there is only one. I reviewed an excellent book on Enrico Fermi’s question and its possible answers. It’s definitely worth reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the question since I read that book back in March. So what I’m going to do in this entry is list all the possible explanations for the Navy sightings that I can come up with, irrespective of their likelihood. Note well that I don’t “believe” in any of them. I offer them as hypotheses. And yes, some of them are batshit nuts. I’m an SFF writer. Batshit nuts is just one more thing we deal with every day.

Buckle up, kids.

Tonight’s question: What are those things the Navy pilots caught on film?

My hypotheses fall into three general categories:

  1. They really are made and piloted by aliens. I cite this for completeness only. I have reason to think it’s not the case, since I have a hunch we are alone in the universe. I won’t discuss this category further. It’s long since been discussed to death.
  2. They are made and piloted by Hungarians. (This is an inside joke. Look it up.) What I mean by it is that the objects were created right here on Earth, as a result of top-secret research into novel physics. (Ok, here’s a cheat.)
  3. They are the result of…weirdness. Patience. I’ll get there.

So. It’s possible that the objects are in fact aircraft of some sort, piloted or drones, created in somebody’s lab somewhere under truly deadly secrecy. Physics is not as complete and airtight as physicists would like the general public to believe. The big glitch in physics currently is dark matter and dark energy, about which I have some quibbles, but set those aside. Darkstuff (my coinage) may be a telltale of novel physics, novel enough to give us “thrusters,” that is, engines that don’t depend on action/reaction; e.g., throwing stuff backwards.

If that’s the case, the apparitions may simply be a show of force by whoever developed the thrusters. Let’s hope those developers are American.

That’s the entirety of Category 2 in a nutshell.

So let’s take a look at Category 3. This is the fun stuff. I’ll give you another list, of explanations that seem absurd on the surface…keeping in mind that we as a species have been wrong before, and we will doubtless be wrong again.

1. They are aircraft from Earth’s own future, piloted by human beings who have figured out time travel. I like this one, as there is a whole series of novels buried in the premise. (Somebody may have already written them.) As I understand the physics, time travel, while difficult, is more possible than faster-than-light travel. It may require some of that darkstuff to make it work, but however it works, those Tic-Tac travelers could be somebody from a few hundred thousand years in our future. What they’re up to is unclear. Maybe they’re just testing their machinery. Maybe they’ll announce themselves eventually. Maybe they’re trying to stop us from making some really bad mistakes. (If so, they should have set their meters to 1900 and prevented us from creating Communism, which killed 100,000,000 people in the 20th century and is still killing them.)

2. They are glitches in the simulation that we here on Earth call The Universe. Glitches–or beta tests of new features. Maybe bugs–rounding errors, or off-by-one errors. Reality-as-software is a scary notion to anybody who’s done any significant programming. Supposedly we could determine if we are in fact existing in a simulation, but I’m skeptical of that claim.

3. They are evolved but not intelligent organisms, originating in our solar system if not necessarily on Earth. (This is a variation on Category 1, but I put it here because it’s way weirder than canonical big-eyed Aliens.) If exotic physics yielding thrusters are possible, they could emerge via evolution from conditions that could be radically different from what we have on Earth. Who knows what could cook itself up in the atmospheres of Jupiter or Saturn? What I mean here is something like an animal, not self-reflective, but posessed of the means to cross interplanetary distances. Maybe they thrusted their way here, zipped around for awhile sampling the local environment, and finally decided it’s not fun and went home. It’s humbling to admit that they may not have noticed our presence at all while they were here.

4. They are poltergeist activity. (Hey, don’t zone out. I warned you!) This is tough to describe, but it’s a scruffy box into which we could place all sorts of “paranormal” phenomena–some of which look suspiciously like reactionless motion. Telekinesis, psi powers, all that stuff. A friend of mine was confronting poltergeist activity fifteen-odd years ago, and Colin Wilson has written about it extensively. Objects fly around the room, appear and disappear, with no known force behind any of it. Peculiar mental powers seem to exist. I’ve experienced a couple of those things that I still can’t explain. But they happened. (I can’t go into any of it here.) Maybe our UFOs are just astral travelers, out for a ride without having any suspicion that they can be seen or perhaps any clear notion of where they are.

5. They are irruptions from the collective unconscious. Some might choose to toss this in the poltergeist box as well, at least those who think poltergeists are irruptions from the collective unconscious. I don’t. I’ve read extensively about Marian apparitions like Lourdes, Fatima, Zeitoun, and many others. There is something called the White Lady archetype in Jungian thinking. Humans have a thing for luminous women popping up in odd places. (The white is their overall color, not their skin color–I have to say that in this race-nutso era.) Christianity shaped that archetype into the Mother of God in Christian visions. However, white ladies were originally a pagan archetype and are still being seen all over the place in contexts without any religious framework at all. Seeing odd things moving around in the sky is also an archetype. It gained strength in the first half of the 20th Century as popular culture embraced predictions of space travel and people from other worlds. In 1947, assisted by movies and TV, the archetype got legs. Note that these aren’t purely mental glitches in the minds of the Navy pilots. These are disturbances in the physical world that generate/reflect light and can be photographed.

6. They are intrusions from higher spatial dimensions. Now, this hypothesis could also be tossed in that scruffy box with the poltergeists, but I mean it in a more rigorously geometrical way: If there are in fact more than three spatial dimensions (I’ve heard people talk about as many as nine) then suppose some four-dimensional being is poking at our planet with a stick. Imagine Flatland here, with a 3-D being poking at the surface of the plane or sphere or whatever 2-D surface you like. Moving that stick will appear to the denizens of Flatland as a cross-section of the stick moving around without any apparent cause. The cross-section of a four-dimensional stick would be a three-dimensional lump. Its motive power would be off in hyperspace where we can’t see it. All we would see are the cross-sections of 4-D objects moving around like crazy, unimpeded by Newton’s laws. Why? Who knows? Maybe it’s the hyperspatial equivalent of skipping stones on a quiet lake, done simply for fun. Again, it’s possible that whatever entity is holding the stick has no knowledge of us at all.

That’s what I have so far. If I had to choose one to hold as most likely (and I don’t) I would choose an application of novel physics by human scientists and engineers right down here on Earth. Secrets of that sort are very hard to keep, and I wonder if the leaks have begun, and the Feds are feeling their way toward eventual disclosure of the technology. It would be perhaps the most wonderful “unsettled science” ever discovered, as it would open the solar system to human exploration and habitation.

Remember that this is a rant, and I have my SFF writer’s hat on. I embrace Haldane’s Law: The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine–and I can imagine a lot.

Odd Lots

  • Mercury has a tail. Whodathunkit? With all that solar wind blasting over it, the poor planet’s already thin atmosphere is constantly being driven outward, forming a tail over 24 million kilometers long. That makes ol’ Merc the biggest comet in the Solar System. You can’t see it visually; if you’re used to astrophotography, shoot through a sodium filter to make the tail more visible. Some good shots at the link; check it out.
  • NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe has left asteroid Bennu and is headed for home as fast as limited fuel and orbital mechanics allow. It’s got 300 grams of asteroid dirt to drop, after which it will head into a parking orbit. NASA is considering another mission for the probe. Nothing crisp yet, but there’s still some life in the device, so why waste it?
  • Having listened carefully to 60 million stars in toward the galactic center, the Breakthrough Listen project has found no sign of alien intelligence. We may be the one impossibly unlikely fluke that solved the Drake Equation.
  • Relevant to the above: Our dwarfy next-door neighbor Proxima Centauri spit out a flare a couple of years ago that was 100 times more powerful than anything we’ve ever seen out of our Sun. If too many dwarf stars are in this habit, it could bode ill for the chances of life elsewhere in our galaxy, where we have red dwarf stars like some people have mice.
  • I stumbled across a British news/opinion site whose USP is going against the grain of conventional wisdom. Given the current drain-spiral of American media, it can be useful to have a few overseas news sites on your bookmarks bar. This one is definitely contrarian. It’s also sane and not prone to the often-comical frothing fury we see in news outlets here.
  • Tis the season to be stumbling, in fact: I stumbled upon Reversopedia, which is a compendium of things that we don’t know or can’t prove. The entries are odd lots for very large values of “odd.” E.g: “Why is space 3-dimensional? And is it?” I love that sort of thing because it makes me think about matters that could easily become the central gimmicks of SF stories.
  • Bari Weiss posted a solid article on Substack saying what a lot of people are thinking but afraid to say out loud: That vaccinated people don’t need masks, especially outside. Social pressure against mask skeptics is intense. Masks have become a culture-war thing, which is both absurd and dangerous: Antivaxxers are asking what is actually a sensible question: If the vaccines are real and not just saline solution, why do we have to keep wearing masks?
  • Substack (see above item) is an interesting concept, rather like a blog site that you can get paid for. A lot of articles can be read for free, and subscription fees for many writers are $5/month. It’s not a gumball machine for articles, but rather a gumball machine for writers. A lot of writers who would be anathema in big national vehicles can write there, gather a following, and make a living.
  • Is sleeping with your TV on ok? Short answer: No. (And I’m wondering how old the stock photo in the article is, given that it shows a glass-screen TV.)
  • IBM has just created a proof-of-concept chip with a 2NM process. IBM’s published density numbers for this node are 333M transistors per square millimeter, whew! They say 2NM will improve performance by 45% at the same power.
  • I haven’t said much about my book project Odd Lots lately. It was a classic “odd moments” project accomplished in moments scattered across the last year or two. I just got the first proof copy back from Amazon and will be cleaning it up as time allows. Most of what’s wrong are OCR errors of old writings for which I no longer have disk files and had to scan out of magazines. I expect to post it on Amazon before the end of May.

My Great-Grandmother’s 150th Birthday

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I was adding a couple of new names to my Family Tree Maker 2019 database last week when I realized that Martha Winkelman Duntemann’s 150th birthday was coming up. Today’s the day, and for me it’s worth some modest celebration. Martha (who died in 1967) is now 150 years old–and I knew her. That seems odd, bordering on the impossible somehow.

But it’s true. Martha was born on a Bensenville, Illinois farm on April 10, 1871. I have a scan of an old plat map somewhere with the names of the farmers on their acreage. I believe the Winkelman farm was on land now part of O’Hare Field. The Duntemann farm certainly was. In fact, I discovered with a little mapwork that the Duntemann farmhouse was almost directly where the airport’s boiler plant is. You see it from the freeway coming out of the main terminal on your right. Interestingly, my father was the gas company liaison engineer to the city when they built the gas-fired boiler plant in the early 1960s. He never knew (as best I recall) that his great-grandfather’s farm was right there.

Martha married Frank W. Duntemann on January 31, 1892. She was 19; he 24. They had two sons: Harry George Duntemann, born on October 20 of that year, and Elvin Frederick Duntemann, born July 16, 1895. Harry was my grandfather, and Uncle El was a jolly, goodhearted man whom I saw less often than I should have. Martha’s husband Frank died in 1936. My father was named after him. The family photo shown below is undated, but by the ages of the boys I’m guessing 1900.

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Frank did not go into farming as most of his four brothers did. Instead he established a general store in the little railroad town of Orchard Place, Illinois, roughly where Higgins Road crosses the Soo Line railroad. Soon after the store opened, Frank got the job of Orchard Place postmaster, which he held until a year or two before he died.

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The family lived over the general store. Martha shut the store down after Frank died and Des Plaines took over the mail processing. By 1936 she was 65, and did not want to tend the store on her own. Her son Elvin took some of the inventory and created a coal and building materials dealership in a new, larger building up the road a ways, which was in business well into the 1950s. The store was converted to a separate first-floor apartment. Martha lived the rest of her life on the second story, alone, for another 30 years.

Orchard Place met its end in the mid-1950s. The Feds literally dropped an Interstate on it. The NW Tollway was built over what little “main street” the town had. Before the toll road was built, many of the old houses, including the General Store building, were moved a few blocks north into what by then was a Des Plaines residential neighborhood. The old store building is still there on Curtis Street, and is now owned by one of my cousins, a grandchild of Uncle El.

Martha was less alone than you might think. There were several Duntemann families on the same block, including Elvin and his three children and their families. When we went out to visit when I was a kid, I played with my cousins, but always went upstairs to say hi and get a hug from my great-grandma. I have a grainy b/w photo from 1954 or 1955 (below) including four Duntemann generations: Martha, her son Harry and his wife, Harry’s son Frank (my father), my mother, my Aunt Kathleen, and…me. Oh, and two dogs, Willie and Rebel, who didn’t particularly get along. Rebel is cut off at the bottom of the photo, held firmly in place by my mother. Willie, on my dad’s lap, apparently wanted to be anywhere else but there.


Martha was rail-thin, energetic, and spry to the end of her life. She had 19 great-grandchildren and often had a pile of my younger cousins on her lap:

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She went up and down the stairs to her apartment unaided until three weeks before she died at age 96, and never missed church on Sundays. She is buried beside her husband Frank at Town of Maine Cemetery, Park Ridge.

Obviously, I wish I had known her better. But she lived out in the burbs, and died when I was 14. Remarkably, she outlived all four of my grandparents (including her son Harry) who died when I was 2, 4, 12, and 13. I wished I’d known them better too–granting that my mother’s parents were Polish immigrants who didn’t speak English.

So here’s to you, Great-Grandma! Happy 150th Birthday! You carried the flame of life down to me (and by now, hordes of others including my sister’s girls and my cousins who now have kids who have kids, yikes!) and it was an honor to know you even as little as I did. You are my link to a time when trains ran on coal and Chicago’s suburbs were mostly cornfields. Until we meet again…go with God, and rest assured that the gift of life you gave us has not been wasted.


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Carol and I went grocery shopping this morning, and came home with the biggest damn apple either of us had ever seen. It’s a honeycrisp, which we’ve had before, many times. However, none of them were ever like this honeycrisp. They weren’t labeled “giant honeycrisp” or anything. And while this was the largest one in the display, the others were just about as big. If you don’t eat apples very often, you’ll find a comparison photo between The Giant Apple and an ordinary Gala below:

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Wow. Just wow.

Yesterday, Arizona’s governor made masking optional, and allowed bars, restaurants, and gyms to open at full capacity. O dear Lord, the dudgeon; the moaning and the groaning and the predictions that everyone in Arizona is gonna die. Well, the graph of COVID-19 deaths here is down to single digits per day, and over three million people in Arizona have received at least one shot. The state is running some of its vaccine centers 24/7, and now anyone over the age of 17 can make an appointment to be vaccinated. No one knows how many people had a brush with the virus but never even noticed. It might be a lot, mostly younger, and now mostly resistant to infection. We’re far closer to herd immunity than anyone in the media or government is willing to admit.

I check that ADHS graph every morning. No one knows why we had the fall/winter surge with mask compliance at 90% here. This tells me masks really don’t help much. Some of that may be because masks don’t protect your eyes. More may be that the virus does indeed travel as an aerosol, which might be slightly attenuated by a typical mask–but only slightly. No one knows, including our supposed “experts,” who say whatever they’re told by the people who own them, and lie on demand, all “for the greater good.”

The media (and most of our elites) really doesn’t want the pandemic to end. It was a titanic ego trip for them, to pump out endless panic porn and watch people obey them slavishly and persecute others who were skeptical. There’s backlash brewing: CNN’s ratings are in freefall, and the sooner they collapse and go under, the better. Some in the medical community are now calling foul on harassing the general public. Cord-cutting may finish the job that the backlash began: Carol and I dumped cable TV and now keep cable service solely for Internet access. I’ve been investigating Internet Radio to fill the gaps. The units are basically low-end computers with network connections, and can be had for less than $200. Music is big, but there is plenty of news and weather if you know their IPs. Internet radio is basically the stake hovering over the heart of cable TV/audio, and the hammer is coming down.

Reception of our local classical radio station KBAQ can be spotty. It gets disrupted when a jet flies over the house, heading for the Scottsdale airport. (This happens a lot.) They stream over the Internet, and with an Internet radio, I won’t have to worry about multipath or other species of radio interference.

Since we’ve moved to Phoenix, I’ve noticed that an entire genre of computer retailers is missing: the box shop. By that I mean a place that would put together a custom PC for you. I had a machine built at Fry’s back in 2018, but Fry’s is now gone. I had a great box shop up in Colorado Springs. That’s where my current (aging) desktop came from. I need a new one, but if box shops still exist here, they hide well. Yes, yes, I could do it myself, and if I must I will. But having done it many times before, I consider it a bad use of my time.

Alas, the Thermaltake case I used back in 2012, their BlacX, no longer exists. That’s the one with two SATA drive slots in the top panel, so you can plug barenaked SATA drives into the top for quick backups. I suspect the BlacX was popular in the LAN party era, but like box shops, LAN parties are receding into the misty past at 40% C. Thermaltake does make a 2-slot external SATA dock, which I’m guessing I’ll end up using.

The pool water is now at 61°. We bought a new solar cover a few weeks ago. As soon as the water hits 70°, we’ll spread it out, and in another week or so the water should be at 80°, which for me is the lower limit of swimming temperatures. Winter here was nice, but it’s gone. The pool makes the summers worthwhile.

I tried rereading Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, but the 1968 Dover paperback I have is laid out with such small type that even with reading glasses, it gives me headaches. Ebooks arrived just in time for my old eyes. I also bought the NESFA Press hardcover of Believing, which is a collection of all the non-People stories of Zenna Henderson. It wasn’t cheap, but it’s a handsome book, and will replace several crumbling MMPBs from the ’60s. Oddly, it’s not on Amazon. I had to order it direct from NESFA.

And with that, I declare today over. Time to hit the sack. Much to do tomorrow.

Review: Where Is Everybody? by Stephen Webb

41oxPnAPxHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI have a lot of books. In general, when I buy (or somehow acquire) a book I read it right away. I realized a few weeks ago that although my sister gave me a copy of Ingathering by Zenna Henderson some years back, it got shelved without being read. My bad. My review is in my entry for 2/9/2021.

So I went hunting for other books in this situation. The Principle of Mediocrity applies here: If there was one unread book on my shelves, there will probably be others. It didn’t take long to find one: Where Is Everybody? by Stephen Webb. It’s not a new book. It was published in 2002, and sent to me for review in 2003 by an editor at Copernicus Books, Paul Farrell. 2002 was not a good year for me, for reasons you know already. In a way, it remains the annus horribilis of my life. In 2003 we moved away from Arizona to get away from constant reminders of the horribilis. (For newcomers: 2002 was the year my publishing company here in Arizona crashed and burned, through no fault of my own. Long story.) So I guess it’s unsurprising that the book went onto the shelves unread. In fact, it probably went straight into a box. I (finally) finished it an hour or so ago.

As an SF writer, it’s a topic I have a keen interest in: aliens, and the cogent question asked by physicist Enrico Fermi way back in 1944: If there is life elsewhere in the universe, why haven’t we encountered evidence of it yet?

Good question. A lot of really smart people have grappled with it, but the (obvious) spoiler is that we don’t know. (Yet.) Where Is Everybody? is a systematic presentation of fifty proposed explanations for why we’ve not encountered the Galactic Confederation. The author gives each a number and takes us through them in order, explaining why none of them really answers Fermi’s question. For example, Solution 20 is “We Have Not Listened Long Enough.” There’s a lot of Universe, and we’ve only been listening to “waterhole” frequencies for an insignificant amount of time, compared to the lifetime of our galaxy. Solution 44 is “The Prokaryote-Eukaryote Transition Is Rare.” That was a new one for me (biology is not my field) and involves the jump between primordial single-celled life and the more complex form of single-celled life that eventually evolved into multicellular organisms. We can’t explain how it happened, but somehow it did. Was it a fluke? Don’t know.

Stephen Webb separates the 50 proposed explanations of the Fermi Question into three broad groups: 1. They Are Already Here. 2. They Exist But Have Not Yet Communicated. And 3. They Do Not Exist. A lot of the issues are things I had read about elsewhere. A surprising number were new to me. Along the way, he talks about the Drake Equation and how it relates to the probability of finding intelligent life beyond Earth. In a sense, most of the issues discussed in the book either represent existing terms of the Drake Equation, or could be considered new ones.

All the usual explanations are taken up: berserkers, species suicide here on Earth, the Rare Earth hypothesis (which is actually taken up in several parts, each with its own number and section in the book) gamma ray bursters, asteroid bombardment, giant planets in the wrong places, lack of a Moon, lack of plate tectonics in most rocky planets, and so on.

A few of the proposed solutions may strike some as outre. Solution 7 is “The Planetarium Hypothesis,” which proposes that we are living in a simulated universe, with the superhuman aliens behind the scenes, pulling the levers and observing us. That’s an interesting one because it can be disproven, using what we know about the data and energy requirements of a simulation as good as our reality suggests. Solution 8 is “God Exists,” and He set things up just right for the universe to evolve us–and perhaps created an infinitude of other universes either sterile or fine-tuned to benefit other intelligent life. I’m reminded of Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 pseudo-novel Star Maker, in which an unthinkably powerful being creates a series of universes, each more “mature” than the last. (I found the book largely impenetrable when I read it at 17. It may be worth another look 51 years later. If nothing else, I’ve developed patience in the interim.)

Webb’s writing is refreshingly clear and easygoing. He’s a natural explainer, in the same way that Isaac Asimov was. He cites a lot of researchers and their research as he explains each topic, and there is a fat section of references and pointers to further readings at the back of the book. I came away from it feeling satisfied with the time I spent, and better still, that I learned something–a lot of somethings, in fact–along the way.

Webb does not intend to prove (or disprove) the existemce of Extrarrestial Civilizations (ETCs). The point of the book (or the joker in the deck, if you’re a fervent believer in ETCs) is that we do not have anything close to enough data to form a conclusion. He does confirm the feeling I had as he explained one possible solution after another: There are a lot of very difficult hurdles between a sterile planet and a starfaring civilization. By the end, I felt that he had added a good fifteen or twenty new terms to the Drake Equation. If those new terms are as difficult as our research suggests, yes, we are indeed an exceedingly unlikely Cosmic Fluke, and probably alone in the universe.

This doesn’t bother me, even as a science fiction writer. When I was a teen and for a few years afterward, I wrote stories about aliens. However, I’ve judged only two of them good enough to put before the public: Firejammer and “Born Again, With Water.” My conclusion is mostly this: If intelligent alien life exists elsewhere in the universe and we come upon them, we may not have much to talk about. We may not be able to talk to them at all. Shared experience, even the shared experience of being born into an orderly and comprehensible universe, may be impossible across the gulf to an alien mind.

That is, unless you count my Metaspace Saga, in which aliens create our universe as a way of obtaining a better random-number generator. Except–they’re not really aliens. No more spoilers. I’m working on it. There are some hints in The Cunning Blood. The rest will come out eventually.

In the meantime, I powerfully recommend Stephen Webb’s book. What I didn’t notice until I went up to schnarf the book’s cover image for this entry is that he published a second edition in 2015–and now he’s got seventy-five proposed solutions to tackle. I’ll pick that one up eventually. In the meantime, I’m scanning my shelves for other gems that may have been hiding from me. They’re in there somewhere. Like I said, I have a lot of books.

The Trouble with Wikis

A week or so ago I bestirred myself and installed MediaWiki on my Web host. I’d been intending to do that for some time, but (as my friend Don put it) my life was ODTAA for a bit. Installing it was a snap. My provider has something called Installatron that did the job, no issues. The software, of course, is free and open-source.

I installed it in part to become more familiar with the MediaWiki system. As usual, when installing something new, I went up to Amazon and checked for books on MediaWiki.

Unless I missed something, there are five.

Plus a few more in French, German, and Japanese. Furthermore, those five books did not all get favorable reviews. The title I was most interested in is now 11 years old and way behind the current release of MediaWiki. (I ordered it anyway, along with O’Reilly’s MediaWiki: Wikipedia and Beyond, which is even older.)

My first question was: Why so few books about software this famous?

The answer came to me slowly: Almost nobody wants to create/maintain/populate their own wiki. MediaWiki is famous for one reason: Wikipedia. I’ve seen a number of other public wikis, including, Conservapedia, Everipedia, WikiHow, Wikispecies, and WikiTree. There is a list on Wikipedia that eyeballs at about 80. Let’s be generous and triple that to account for wikis that Wikipedia didn’t list, and for private wikis. So, say, 250. That’s not much of a market for books. Even 500 installs would not float a print book.

MediaWiki’s online presence has a feature for creating a downloadable PDF version of the MediaWiki documentation, but it’s currently disabled. Sheesh.

Having gone crosseyed reading about it online, my conclusion is that MediaWiki is a bit of a hot mess. That said, I should tell you all why I even bothered: I want to create a wiki for my fiction, and especially about the Gaeans Saga, which includes the Metaspace books and the Drumlins books. I’ve done a little wiki editing, and have a couple of decent books on my shelf about creating content on Wikipedia. The trick to creating content on wikis is having a group of content templates and knowing how to use them. If you look at the page source for any Wikipedia article, the problem becomes obvious: The stuff is crawling with templates, and for the most part they’re templates that don’t come with the generic MediaWiki install.

I discovered this by opening an edit window for Wikipedia’s article on the star mu Arae, which in my Metaspace books is the location of Earth’s first colony. I loaded the whole wad onto the clipboard and dropped it into a new page on my MediaWiki instance. A few of the templates were present on MediaWiki. Most were not, and the article incorporated dozens. I went back and lifted the source for 47 Tucanae. Same deal.

Now, Wikipedia content is available under Creative Commons. Grabbing the articles is easy and legal. I soon found after googling around for awhile that grabbing the templates, while legal, is not easy. Some templates are actually contained in libraries written in…Lua. I have some sympathies for Lua, which strongly resembles Pascal. It made me wonder, however, why a formatting template needs to make calls into a code library. As best I know, this is something specific to Wikipedia, and is not present in the generic MediaWiki.

I like the overall look of Wikipedia. People are used to it. I’d like to incorporate that design into my own instance of MediaWiki. I wouldn’t need all the templates, though some would be damned useful. That said, I see no reason why some sharp MediaWiki hacker couldn’t gin up an installer for all of Wikipedia’s templates, no matter how many there are. Maybe such a thing already exists, though I think that if it did, I would have found it by now.

There are other projects needing my attention, so I’m going to set this one aside for awhile. Obviously, if anybody reading this knows where to find an installable collection of Wikipedia’s templates, give a yell.

Review: Ingathering by Zenna Henderson

ingathering.jpgSome years ago, my sister gave me a copy of the NESFA Press hardcover edition of Ingathering, a collection of all of Zenna Henderson’s stories of The People, including a story timeline tying them together into a loose history. It came to me during a turbulent period of my life, and for some reason (Losing my publishing company? Moving to Colorado? Retirement? Moving back?) I never just sat down and read it. For that I apologize to her. I just finished it this afternoon. It was well worth the time and effort.

The stories are old; some were published the year I was born. (Zenna was born in 1917 and died in 1983.) I read many but not all of them before. I still have the MMPBs I bought in high school and college, and I’m glad I don’t have to read them again. My new reading glasses won’t be in for a week or two, and these old eyes just can’t process such small print by themselves anymore, quite apart from the fact that simply turning the now-yellowed pages would probably destroy the books.

If you’ve never heard of Henderson’s People, here’s the quick summary: In 1890, six starships full of the inhabitants of a planet they simply call The Home flee the planet, which is inexplicably disintegrating from no stated cause. One of these starships attempts a landing on Earth and miscalculates re-entry. An unstated number of People leave the big ship in lifeboats, and (some) land successfully in various places on Earth. The big ship crashes in (I think) the American West, still in 1890. The People Saga (my coinage) is about how the People struggle within a culture that treats them with suspicion and burns some as witches. For the People have what they call Signs and Persuasions, basically (to use that fine old ’50s term) psi powers. No complete catalog is given, but there are Sorters (intuitive psychiatrists), Motivers (telekinetics), Seers (prophets), Lifters (self-telekinetics), and a fair number of others, including one, called The Francher Kid, who can make musical instruments play themselves. All are telepathic. Over the years (the timeline runs from 1890 to 1970) the lifeboat refugees who survived the landing gradually find one another, and with greater or lesser success melt into human society.

The People are physically indistinguishable from us Earthlings, close enough to interbreed. Although not Christian, they worship a trinitarian God whom they call The Name, The Power, and The Presence. They are generous, kind, enthusiastic, helpful, and for the most part what Earthlings should be but aren’t. Friendship matters to them, and as you’ve heard me say many times, friendship is the cornerstone of the human spirit.

The People stories have been criticized as mawkish, corny, sentimental, maudlin, and repetitive. Many are tear-jerkers. Nearly all are surprisingly moving, especially if you’ve purged the cowardice some call cynicism from your life. (I have.) I put the box of Kleenex that lives on my desk on the table next to my reading chair. Yes, I needed it. A few of them made me want to stand up and cheer. That’s one reason I read them all again, after almost fifty years. There are no downer endings. Every single one is upbeat and affirming. And boy, considering the shitshow we’re all still in the middle of, I needed that.

Many of the stories are told from the viewpoint of one-room schoolhouse teachers in what is almost certainly Arizona, where Zenna Henderson was born, lived, wrote, and died. That’s what she was. Having been a teacher, she wrote from the heart about the very, very human business of learning. And not just numbers or words, but what’s right and what’s wrong, coming to know and growing into your own “magic powers,” how we are all very much in this together, and how together we can make it all work.

I’m still a little surprised that the only TV/cinema treatment of the People is a now mostly forgotten 1972 made-for-TV movie starring William Shatner and Kim Darby. (You can watch it on YouTube, if you can stand resolution that low.) I saw it in 1972 and enjoyed it. If anything deserves a 2021 reboot, The People Saga does.

I have a few reservations about the People Saga:

  • The People are just too damned perfect. Ok, there are a couple of stories showing members of the People acting selfishly, but for the most part, damn, if you need a hand they’ll fly half their settlement over to get you through a crisis.
  • Hard SF guy that I am, I wanted to know how they were so genetically identical to us that we could interbreed. Henderson shows no lack of imagination. It could be that some ancient godlike race scattered humans across the galaxy and let them grow into their powers. We chose machinery. The People chose…themselves. She could have given us a quick paragraph clarifying the matter.
  • Similarly, planets don’t just alluvasudden fall apart. There’s a whole well-known catalog of possible cosmic catastrophes. I wanted to know which one prompted the People’s star-crossed star crossing to Earth. Granted, that’s just me. Henderson provides some surreal hints that The People had forgotten too much about science and technology, and that The Power had to force them to remember what they’d lost, even if it meant scragging their planet and sending them across the galaxy to live among primitives who’d just as soon kill you as look at you.
  • Is FTL one of their psi powers? Damn, if I could only have one, that’d be the one. But there’s no indication of how their starships trumped Einstein.
  • The stories get a little repetitive at times. This is what worries me about my own Drumlins Saga. I don’t want the stories to plow the same field over and over. On the flipside, even when she tells the same story for the seventh time, it’s still affirming and still makes me reach for the Kleenex. She knew what she was doing, and was damned good at it.

I grinned to see this in Zenna’s Wikipedia bio: She was buried in Benson, Arizona.

Anything else I might say would include spoilers. I loved the book, and will read it again if life ever gets a little too depressing. If you need a mood-lift and don’t mind reaching for the Kleenex when necessary, well, here it is. Highly recommended.

The Raspberry Pi Pico…and a Tiny Plug-In Pi

Yesterday the Raspberry Pi Foundation announced the Raspberry Pi Pico, at the boggling temporary low price of…$4US. It’s definitely a microcontroller on the order of an Arduino rather than the high-end 8GB RPi that might stand in for a complete desktop mobo. And that’s ok by me. The chip at its heart is new: the RP2040, a single-chip microcontroller designed to interface with mainstream Raspberry Pi boards, and lots of other things.


Now, what caught my attention in the page linked above was the list of partner products made by other firms using the same RP2040 chip. Scroll down to the description of the SparkFun MicroMod RP2040 proccesor board. It’s still on preorder, but look close and see what’s there: an edge connector…on a board the size of a quarter! That’s not precisely what I was wishing for in my previous entry, but it’s certainly the right idea.


As I understand it, SparkFun is turning the RPi-wearing-a-hat on its ear, into a hat-wearing-an-RPi. The M.2 interface used in the product is actually a standard developed some years back for use in connecting SSDs to tiny slots on mobos. I knew about M.2, but wouldn’t have assumed you could mount a CPU-add-in board using it. Well, shazam! Done deal.

The RP2040 chip is a little sparse for my tastes. I want something I can run FreePascal/Lazarus on, over a real OS. I don’t see anything in the M.2 spec that would prevent a much more powerful processor board talking to a device (like a keyboard, TV or monitor) across M.2. The big problem with building a high-end RPi into things is keeeping it cool. The Foundation is aware of this, and did a very good job in the $100US Raspberry Pi 400 Pi-in-a-keyboard. (This teardown and review is worth a look if you’re interested in the platform at all. The author of the teardown goosed the board to 2.147 GHz and it didn’t cook itself.)

I fully intend to get an RPi 400, though I’ve been waiting awhile to see if there will soon be an RPi 800 keyboard combo with an 8GB board instead of 4GB. Given the price, well hell, I might as well get the 4GB unit until an 8GB unit appears.

So consider my previous post overruled. It’s already been done. And I for one am going to watch this part of the RPi aftermarket very carefully!

Proposal: A New Standard for Encloseable Small Computers

Monitors are getting big. Computers are getting small. I think I’ve mentioned this idea before: a cavity in a monitor big enough to hold a Raspberry Pi, with the monitor providing power, video display, and a couple of USB ports for connecting peripherals like mice, keyboards, and thumb drives. Several of my Dell monitors have a coaxial power jack intended for speaker bars, and a USB hub as well. I’ve opened up a couple of those monitors to replace bad electrolytics, and as with most computer hardware, a lot of that internal volume is dead space.

The idea of a display with an internal computer has long been realized in TVs, many of which come with Android computers inside. That said, I’ve found them more a nuisance than useful, especially since I can’t inspect and don’t control the software. These days I outsource TV computing to a Windows 10 Intel NUC sitting on the TV cabinet behind the TV.

The top model of the Raspberry Pi 4, with 8 GB RAM, is basically as powerful as a lot of intermediate desktops, with more than enough crunch for typical office work; Web, word processing, spreadsheets, etc. With the Debian-based Raspberry Pi OS (formerly Raspbian) and its suite of open-source applications, you’ve got a desktop PC. More recently, the company has released the Raspberry Pi 400, which is a custom 4GB RPi 4 built into a keyboard, with I/O brought out the back edge. (In truth, I’d rather have it built into a display, as I am extremely fussy about my keyboards.) Computers within keyboards have a long history, going back to (I think) the now-forgotten Sol-20 or perhaps the Exidy Sorcerer. (Both appeared in 1978.)

What I want is breadth, which means the ability to install any of the modern small single-board computers, like the Beaglebone and its many peers. Breadth requires standardization, both in the monitor and in the computer. And if a standard existed, it could be implemented in monitors, keyboards, printers, standalone cases, robot chassis, and anything else that might be useful with a tiny computer in its tummy.

A standard would require both physical and electrical elements. Electrical design would be necessary to bring video, networking, and USB outside the enclosure, whatever the enclosure is. (I reject the bottom-feeder option of just leaving a hole in the back of the enclosure to bring out conventional cables.) This means the boards themselves would have to be designed to mate with the enclosure. What I’m envisioning is something with a card slot in it, and a slot spec for video, network, i2s, and USB connections. (GPIO might not be available through the slot.) The boards themselves would have slot connectors along one edge, designed to the standard. The redesigned boards could be smaller and thinner (and cheaper) without the need for conventional video, network, audio, and USB jacks. (Network connectors are increasingly unnecessary now that many boards have on-board WiFi and Bluetooth antennas.) Picture something like the Raspberry Pi Zero with edge connectors for I/O.

Defining such a standard would be a minor exercise in electrical engineering. The big challenge would be getting a standards body like ANSI interested in adopting it. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has the engineering chops, obviously, and once a standard has been created and proven out, groups like IEEE or ANSI might be more inclined to adopt it and make it “official.”

I understand that this might “fork” the small-board computing market between GPIO boards and non-GPIO boards. Leaving the GPIO pads on the opposite edge of the board is of course possible, and would allow the board to be enclosed or out in the open, or inside some other sort of enclosure that leaves room for GPIO connections. A big part of the draw of the small boards is the ability to add hardware functionality in a “hat” that plugs into the GPIO bus, and I don’t want to minimize that. I think that there’s a market for non-GPIO boards that vanish inside some larger device or enclosure that provides jacks for connections to the outside world. The Raspberry Pi 400 is an excellent example of this, with GPIO header access as well. What I’m proposing is a standard that would allow a single enclosure device to be available to any board designed to the standard.

Ok, it would be hard–for small values of hard. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be well worth doing.