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Odd Lots

  • Pertinent to my last two entries here: City Journal proposes what I proposed two years ago: To reduce the toxicity of social media, slow it down. What they propose is not exponential delays of replies and retweets to replies and retweets until those delays extend fifteen minutes or more. Like a nuclear reactor control rod, that would slow the explosion down until the hotheads cooled off or got bored and went elsewhere. Instead, they suggest Twitter insist on a minimum of 280 characters to posts. That might help some, but if the clue is to slow down viral posts, eliminate the middleman and just slow down responses until “viral” becomes so slow that further response simply stops.
  • A statistical study of mask use vs. COVID-19 outcomes found no correlation between mask use and better outcomes, but actually discovered some small correlation between mask use and worse outcomes. Tough read, but bull through it.
  • While not as systematic as the above study, an article on City Journal drives another nail in the coffin of “masks as infection prevention.” Graph the infection rates in states with mask mandates and states with no mask mandates and they come out…almost exactly the same.
  • Our Sun is getting rowdy, and getting rowdier earlier than expected. Cycle 25 is starting out with a bang. Recent cycles have been relatively peaceful, and nobody is suggesting that Cycle 25 will be anything close to the Cycle 19 peak (1957-58) which was the most active sunspot max in instrumental history. What Cycle 25 may turn out to be is average, which mean 20 meters may start to become a lot more fun than it has been in recent (slow) years.
  • And this leads to another question I’ve seen little discussion on: To what extent are damaging solar storms correlated to sunspot peaks? The huge solar storm of 1921 took place closer to the sunspot minimum than the maximum. The legendary Carrington event of 1859 took place during the fairly weak Cycle 10. As best I can tell, it’s about individual sunspots, and not the general state of the Sun at any point in time.
  • NASA’s Perseverence Mars rover caught a solar eclipse, when Phobos crossed the disk of the Sun as seen from Perseverence. The video of the eclipse was sped up, but it really is a startling image, especially if you know a little about Phobos, which is decidedly non-spherical.
  • I found this very cool: An online, Web-based x86/x64 assembler/disassembler. Although intended for computer security pros, I found it a lot of fun and it may turn out to be useful here and there as I begin to revise my assembly book for the fourth time.
  • Skipping sleep can lead to putting on belly fat, which is absolutely the worst place to have it. Get all the sleep you can, duh. Sleep is not optional.
  • How many stars are there in the observable universe? It’s a far trickier and sublter calculation than you might think. But the final number looked familiar to me, and might look familiar to people who do low-level programming.

The Twitter Damn Breaks

Twitter’s damn has broken. That’s not a typo. The word “damn” means “to cast into the outer darkness.” Twitter is famous for doing that. Well, alluva sudden I’m seeing reports of the Twitter-damned finding that their accounts are live again, and they suddenly have thousands more followers than they had a couple of days ago.

Ok, I’m not one of them. A couple of days ago I had 612 followers. Last time I looked it was 614. But people I know personally suddenly have a thousand or so new followers, and on Twitter itself I see people claiming that they have gained thousandsof followers in the last day or so.

Something’s happening.

And it’s happening too soon. Musk and Twitter have not yet closed the deal. You can’t sleep in a house until all the papers are signed and the money changes hands. So why is Twitter suddenly casting the gates wide again and allowing–conservatives, urk!–to rejoin the global conversation?

Makes no sense, not like that’s a new thing for Twitter. But as a Fluffy the Puppy in my novel Dreamhealer said to Larry the Dreamhealer, “Sense is overrated sometimes.” I can think of two (related) reasons why Twitter is suddenly unbanning the damned, and giving them their followers back. This is speculation, obviously, but if you have any better crackpot ideas I’ll hear them:

  1. Twitter’s current rank and file are terrified of Musk. Not sure why. It’s not beyond imagination that they fear Musk using their own censorship machinery against them–and so they’re dismantling it. I doubt our man Elon is dumb enough to try something like that. But an awful lot of people with ivy degrees think he’s the devil incarnate. Or:
  2. Twitter’s management wants to erase all records of their banning decisions, as well as all operational details of whatever algorithms they employed to do the dirty work. What they fear is the general public finding out how pervasive Twitter’s censorship was, and how laser-focused it all was against a fairly narrow demographic. The worst outcome they can imagine is Musk taking over the company’s servers and posting all the details of how it once worked where the public can easily see them.

There may be more to it than that. We won’t know for awhile what Musk actually intends to change in Twitter’s daily operations. I’ve often wondered if the whole thing is theater, and that something will magically turn up at the last minute that makes the whole deal go belly-up. If so, well, Elon has made his point: Free speech is worth something, and it isn’t free if half the discussion is artificially suppressed.

Again, it’s too soon to be sure of anything. Sooner or later, we’ll know. In the meantime, the water’s over the damn and the damn is in ruins…wich is how all damns richly deserve to be.

Quo Vadis, Twitter?

Elon Musk just bought Twitter. For 44 billion dollars.

Egad, I could think of several thousand better ways to spend $44B. In fact, I brought the topic up ten or fifteen years ago, in an entry here called “If I Had a Billion.” Funny how I can’t find it now on Duck Duck Go, or I’d post a link. Maybe I just imagined it. Maybe I’ve been canceled. Maybe too many people want to talk about being billionaires and my post is down in the noise. No matter.

So what is the guy actually going to do with his new toy? It’s tempting to think of the acquisition as a shot across the bow of social networking, in essence saying, “You can be bought. You won’t like being bought. So lay off with the censorship already.”

Threats of that sort aren’t his style. My best guess is that he’s going to tweak a lot of noses by focusing on Twitter and allowing real discussions about formerly forbidden topics, like climate, race, COVID treatments, and such–you know, the things that have gotten a lot of people thrown off Twitter in recent years. I haven’t gotten thrown off because I’m careful about what I post. Being careful (and not spending half my life there) means I won’t get a lot of attention. (I will admit that mentioning my books on Twitter always sells a few. Otherwise I might have quit long ago.) I don’t talk about politics. And this is why I have 611 followers, rather than several thousand. Being famous is hard work. And if I’m going to be famous, I’d rather not do it on Twitter.

He could also order his techies to add an edit function to Twitter. Dare we hope?

I’ll hope. I won’t assume. Anyway. He could do a number of things to make the service worthwhile:

  1. Add edit functionality. Ok, that’s too easy.
  2. Expand the size of a tweet to 1,000 characters. Or 2,000? At their current length, tweets are most useful in online fistfights. Real discussion requires more space than that. Give users more space, and the quality of the dicussions almost can’t help but go up. I hope.
  3. Slow down replies and retweets. I’ve written about this here before. The idea is to exponentially increase the time it takes for a given tweet to “go viral.” One reply, instantly. Two, one second. Three, two seconds. Four, four seconds. Five, eight seconds. Etc. This would put a huge damper on Twitter lynch mobs. And one would hope that that the psychotic hotheads who comprise those mobs will get bored and go somewhere else. In their place will be slower, and (with some luck) more rational conversations. Read the entry I linked. I think it would work. I don’t think Mr. Musk will do it.
  4. Eliminate the “blue check” status game. Have one color check (which color doesn’t matter) indicating that the poster has proven that he or she is who they say they are and are not a bot. Require that “checks” use their real names. You’re either real or not real. Twitter has no damned business deciding who is important and who isn’t.
  5. Charge users by the tweet. Really. Retain free memberships, but limit the number of tweets that free memberships can post. Create brackets of paid memberships in which the highest paid memberships can post unlimited tweets, with less expensive memberships allowing fewer tweets. This would probably cut the number of Twitter users in half (if not more) but would bring in enough revenue to make the system pay for itself. And I can’t help but think that the people who would quit would be the people who make the most trouble. The quality of dicussion would almost certainly improve.

That’s what I have so far. One thing that I think would be very useful but I doubt anyone will ever do is create a federation API allowing different social media services to share messages among themselves. Maybe Twitter should become a back-end for systems that want to participate but also want to curate the content that their network allows. In other words, if people on the left want to toss out people on the right, and people on the right want to toss out those on the left, Twitter would take everybody and let individual users choose to follow whomever they please. Let the crazies have their bubbles. Make Twitter the Big, Here-Comes-Everybody bubble.

A system like that would take some thought and some serious work. It wouldn’t be impossible. (There’s something called Mastodon that has gone some distance in that direction, albeit at a much smaller scale.) And what it would create would be infinitely better than what we have now.

G’wan, Elon. Give it a shot. You own it. Now do what you do best, which is…surprising us.

Problems with SASM on Linux Mint

I’m scoping out a fourth edition of my book, Assembly Language Step by Step. I got wind of a simple FOSS utility that could be enormously useful in that effort: SASM (SimpleASM), which is an IDE created specifically for assembly-language work. It’s almost ideal for what I need: Simple, graphical, with a surprisingly sophisticated text editor and a graphical interface to GDB. It works with NASM, my assembler of choice. I want to use it as the example code IDE for the book. I installed it without effort on Windows, which is why I decided to use it. But I want to use it on Linux.

Alas, I’ve been unable to get it to install and run on Linux Mint 19 (Tara) using the Cinnamon desktop.

I’ve installed a lot of things on Linux Mint, all of them in the form of Debian packages. (.deb files.) I downloaded the SASM .deb file for Mint 19, and followed instructions found on the Web. There is a problem with dependencies that I just don’t understand.

I got it installed once but it wouldn’t run. I uninstalled it, and then it refused to reinstall.

Keep in mind that I am not a ‘leet Linux hacker. I’m a teacher, and most of what I teach is computing and programming for newcomers. The problem may be obvious to Linux experts but not to me. Most of the software I’ve installed on Mint came from repositories. SASM is a .deb download.

So. Does anybody else use it? If you’ve got Mint on a partition somewhere, could you try downloading it and installing it? I need to know if the problem is on my side of the screen or the other side.

Thanks in advance for any advice you might offer.

Odd Lots

  • I got caught in an April Fools hoax that (as my mother would say) sounded too true to be funny: That Tesla canceled all plans to produce its Cybertruck. (Read the last sentence, as I failed to do.) I like Musk; he has guts and supports space tech. About his Cybertruck concept, um…no. It looks like an origami, or else something that escaped from a third-shelf video game. The world would go on without it, and he might use the money to do something even cooler, whatever that might be.
  • Oh, and speaking of Elon Musk: He just bought almost 10% of Twitter, to the tune of about $3B. He is now the biggest outside shareholder. This is not a hoax, and I wonder if it’s only the beginning. Twitter is famous for suspending people without explaining what they did wrong, sometimes for things that seem ridiculously innocuous. A major shareholder could put pressure on Twitter’s management from the inside to cut out that kind of crap. It’s been done elsewhere. And boy, if anybody can do it, he can.
  • Nuclear energy has the highest capacity factor of any form of energy, meaning the highest percentage of time that energy producers spend actually producing energy. I knew that from my readings on the topic. What shocked me is that there is in fact an Office of Nuclear Energy under the DOE. I’m glad they exist, but boy, they hide well.
  • The Register (“Biting the hand that feeds IT”) published a fascinating article about how C has slowly evolved into an Interface Definition Language (IDL). C was never intended to do that, and actually does a pretty shitty job of it. Ok, I’m not a software engineer, but the way to build a new operating system is to define the IDL first, and work backwards from there. C is now 50 years old, sheesh. It’s time to start again, and start fresh, using a language (like Rust) that actually supports some of the security features (like memory protection and safe concurrency) that C lacks. This is not Pascal sour grapes. I’m studying Rust, even though I may never develop anything using it. Somehow, it just smells like the future.
  • Drinking wine with food (as I almost always do) may reduce your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. It’s not taken up in the article, but I have this weird hunch that sweet wines weren’t part of the study. Residual sugar is a real thing, and I’m drinking way less of it than I did 20 years ago.
  • People have been getting in fistfights over this for most of a century, but establishing Standard Time year-round may be better than year-round Daylight Savings Time. I’m mostly neutral on the issue. Arizona is on permanent DST and we like it fine. The problems really occur at high latitudes, where there isn’t much daylight in winter to begin with, so shifting it an hour in either direction doesn’t actually help much.
  • There is Macaroni and Cheese Ice Cream. From Kraft. Really. I wouldn’t lie to you. In fact, I doubt I would even imagine it, and I can imagine a lot.
  • Optimists live longer than pessimists–especially older optimists. Dodging enough slings and arrows of outrageous fortune somehow just makes the whole world look brighter, I guess.
  • Finally, some stats suggesting that our hyperpartisan hatefest online has pushed a lot of people out of political parties into the independent zone–where I’ve been most of my post-college life. 42% of Americans are political independents, compared to 29% who are Democrats and 27% who are Republicans. I’m on Twitter, but I don’t post meanness and (as much as possible) don’t read it. And if Mr. Musk has his way with them, I may be able to post links to ivermectin research without getting banned.

The Publishing Problem That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Last week a friend of mine pointed me toward something I might otherwise have overlooked: Fiction editors at big NY imprints are quitting their jobs at a boggling rate. There was evidently a Twitter meltdown back on March 11 about the Big 4 (or is it 3? 5? 2.7343? ) losing editors and not being able to find new ones. The trigger was evidently a junior editor at Tor (the SFF imprint of Macmillan) writing a longish note on why she was quitting. Molly McGhee loved the work and did it well, but there was far too much of it for what she was paid. And so she quit.

She was not alone. This appears to be a trend: Fiction editors at NY imprints are bailing in droves. A number of other articles on the topic have appeared in the days since. (Beware: Google the topic and you’ll find a lot of articles about editors resigning due to racist accusations and other weird things, but that’s all old news, going back to the last years of the oughts. This is something much more recent, and completely different.) People aren’t screaming about racism or sexual assault. It’s all about too much work for too little pay. The New York Times asks, “When Will Publishing Stop Starving Its Young?” (paywalled) What they don’t ask is why they’re starving their young to begin with.

Indeed, there is this peculiar air of mystery hovering like a grim gray cloud over the whole unfortunate phenomenon. Why are the big NY imprints treating their staff so badly? Nobody seems willing to even venture a guess. Question marks buzz around these articles like wasps from a poked nest. Want an explanation? I can give you one, an explanation that none of those articles mentions at all:

Indie authors are eating NY’s lunch.

And their hors d’oerves. Not to mention dinner. And their bottomless bags of Cheetos Suzettes. It’s the publishing problem that dare not speak its name: Basically, Kindle is detroying the NY publishing business model. So far it’s just fiction. Technical nonfiction can be a gnarly challenge for ebooks. But I’ve also read a lot of indie-published textual nonfiction ebooks in the last couple of years. For titles without a lot of diagrams or source code, it’s no greater a challenge than novels. Once you know the tools well, a reasonable text-only ebook can be laid out in an afternoon. (I do it all the time.) It doesn’t take weeks or thousands of dollars of hired help. The NY presses lie like rugs: Ebooks are not as costly to produce as print books. And once produced, there’s no printing costs or warehousing costs. Unit cost for the product is zero. Sure, indies have to pay for freelance editing services, and probably cover artists. I maintain that anyone who can write can lay out their own damned ebooks. Lots of people I know are doing it all the time and have done it for years. The cost of entry isn’t zero, but it’s a lot less than New York City.

A huge part of this is the peculiar business model that has grown up around hardcover editions since WWII. I’ve written about this at some length. We had to cope with it at Coriolis back in the 1990s. We did as well as we did for as long as we did in large part because we were not located in luxury pestholes like New York City. Publishing is a low-margin business. It cannot succeed in the cores of monster cities. Rent is soaring in most large cities. You can’t pay staff enough to afford local rents. These days, a publishing company can be spread out among several small towns, or anywhere Zoom-capable broadband is available. NYC culture is its own worst enemy: Smaller cities don’t have the nightlife that huge urban centers have. People who demand that nonstop nightlife won’t be happy in Des Moines or Omaha–much less Flagstaff. But those are the sorts of places where publishing can thrive in 2022.

Will Molly McGhee move to Omaha? Somehow I doubt it.

This doesn’t mean I don’t sympathize. Big companies need to pay their people well, or staff will quit and start careers in other industries. Amazon has trained its customers to feel that ebooks should not cost more than $9.99, You have to operate somewhere that a $10 ebook will pay your bills. That is not NYC. Or San Francisco. Or Chicago. Or LA. Alas, it probably isn’t Phoenix anymore either, though it certainly was when I created Coriolis in 1990.

There are other issues: Spreadsheets now run traditional publishing. Editor instincts matter a lot less than they did 30-40 years ago. The people who make decisions at big publishers (as a friend of mine said years ago) are people who don’t read books. There is also a sort of near-invisible good-ol-boy/girl network in NY that decides who gets promotions and plum positions. It’s gotten to be more who you know than what you know. Choosing the right parents and getting into Harvard now matter a lot more than talent and hard work.

In the meantime, NY publishers who are short on cash are cancelling recently acquired books and putting more muscle behind their existing midlist. They claim (and lie, as do other businesses) that they can’t find anybody to fill positions of those who quit–and then pile the work of vanished staff on staff who remain. Not hiring people is a great way to save cash, and you can always blame the pandemic, or supply chain problems, or the Russians. (Everybody else does.) Rents are up hugely in the big cities. Editors can’t work for peanuts when rent is caviar.There’s a deadly feedback loop here that I don’t need to describe in detail. Do the math.

New York City is too expensive for book publishers. Really. There is absolutely no reason for publishers to remain there, now in the age of Zoom. The city’s fixed costs are astronomical. To make any money at all, publishers have to keep ebook prices just a hair below hardcover prices. Making ebook prices higher than trade paperbacks is nuts–unless you simply can’t abide the idea of ebooks and are privately terrified that they will drive those essential hardcovers into a relatively limited luxury market. Which they will. And then Boom! goes their business model.

I still see articles online claiming that ebooks never really took off, and indie publishing is a tiny little corner of the publishing world. Tracking indie ebook sales is essentially impossible, so a lot of publishing pundits simply ignore them. If you can’t plug a number into a spreadsheet cell, the item in question might as well not exist. My conversations with indie authors gives the lie to that delusion. They’re making money. Few are making their entire living from indie publishing–but how often did authors make their entire living writing under traditional publishing? Damned few, and only the most famous.

There is middle ground, in the form of small press. Coriolis was a small press, even at our biggest, because, well, everything is smaller than Macmillan. My hunch is that many editors who bail out of the Big Apple may be quietly hunting down jobs at smaller presses in smaller cities. (The editors are not alone.) Enough of that, and the notion of Manhattan Publishing will quietly fade into the background, obscured by the taps of tens of millions of fingers moving to the next indie ebook page.

Flashback: Ash Wednesday

From my Contrapositive Diary entry for February 25, 2004. I have a conflicted relationship with Lent, as I suggest here and may explain in more detail in coming days as time permits.


Ash Wednesday. Lent is not my favorite season. I spent my Catholic youth up to my nostrils in penitential sacramentality, and it’s taken me a long time to get over it. I’m mostly there; St. Raphael’s parish here [in Colorado Springs] is about as close to perfect a Catholic parish as I’ve seen in my years-long search-and it’s Episcopalian. The boundaries are slippery, but there’s something called Anglo-Catholicism, and…well, that may have to be an entry for another time. Right now, I’m kind of exhausted, but I wanted to relate a quick story of why I really love St. Raphael’s.

We went to the small noon service for Ash Wednesday, a reverent, quiet, music-less Mass with ashes distributed after the sermon. I hadn’t had ashes put on my forehead for a lot of years, nor had I seen a church with the statues and crucifixes covered with violet cloth for even longer-the Romans don’t do such things anymore. Carol was acting as acolyte-an adult altar girl-and I was in the pew by myself. It was hard to see something as deeply mythic as the enshrouded crosses without thinking back to my own childhood, and remembering being in the pews with my parents during Lent, with all the statues covered and in the air that inescapable sense of misdirected contemplation that somehow always came across as fatalistic gloom. As Deacon Edwina made the ashy cross on my forehead, whispering, “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you will return,” I could only think of my father, who became dust far sooner than the father of a confused and anxious young man should. There were tears on my cheeks as I walked back to my pew, and as I began to kneel again, a little girl in the next pew back (whom I didn’t know) reached out and touched my arm.

“Why are you crying?” she asked, her face full of concern.

“I was thinking of my father,” I said, trying to smile and failing, “who died a long time ago.”

She didn’t say anything in reply, but she leaned over the pew, put her arms around my waist, and gave me a quick hug. I was thunderstruck. She was maybe nine years old, and I had never seen her before. (Her family goes to the 8:00 liturgy, and we attend the 10:30.) There are times that I find myself thinking that cynicism has won, and we who believe that all manner of thing will (eventually) be well should just pack it in. But at that moment I felt that if a nine-year-old girl will reach out to comfort an old bald man she doesn’t even know, well, the Bad Guys don’t stand a chance in Hell.

And on Ash Wednesday, to boot. The contrarian moment passed, and I felt wonderful all afternoon. What power our children have over us!

Lots of Odd Lots

More Monsters

Well, I asked yesterday, and I got: Reader Bob Wilson reminded me of the blob monster flick H-Man (1958; trailer) a Japanese effort featuring a transparent radioactive blob that has a trick I don’t recall seeing in other cinematic blobs: It can change its shape and become humanoid. It’s still transparent (and still radioactive) but it’s still a blob, with an appropriately radium-dial green tint. I only vaguely remembered it, but I did see it in the early ’60s. There were a lot of Japanese people running around, and more monster time-on-screen than most monster movies of that era could boast. YouTube does not have the full movie, so I can’t warn you if there’s kissing. You’ll have to take your chances.

Now, I deliberately left out a film from yesterday’s entry with one of the scariest monsters I’ve ever seen in cinema, for what you might consider a bogus reason: It’s not in a monster movie. It’s in a Disney movie. And not only do you get a really effective monster, you also get to hear a young Sean Connery … singing. Of course, it needs no introduction but I’ll give it one anyway: Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959.) I saw it first-run in the theaters when I was 7, and again in 1977, on a date with Carol. Seeing it the first time with my mom at the Gateway Theater in Chicago, I scrunched down in my seat as far as I could go when Darby first encounters…the banshee.

Ooooooh, did that damned thing freak me out! I’d never heard of banshees at age 7 and didn’t ask a lot of questions. (My mom was Polish, not Irish.) It didn’t look like a ghost, exactly. In truth, I’ve never seen anything quite like it, in cinema or my own fever dreams. I’m pretty sure it was an early use of motion-picture photographic solarization, melted into the main footage with considerable skill. And even 18 years later, at 25, I admired the effect. It was still scary as hell. The movie is good fun, and mostly silliness. (But not all, heh.) If you’ve never seen it before, rent it or watch it online. Prepare to twitch when the banshee first appears. I still do. You will too.

So what other effective monsters might have appeared in non-monster flicks? The obvious answer is the spate of films with Harryhausen monsters. Joe Schwartz reminded me of The Valley of Gwangi, which is basically a western with monsters. The monsters are dinosaurs, which may or may not count as monsters. After all, there really were dinosaurs. I’m pretty sure there aren’t banshees. The film was released in 1969, some years after my monster phase was over. I’ve never seen it, but here’s the monster-rich (not to mention cowboy-rich) trailer.

Now, I did see a few more Harryhausen monsterfests, the earliest of which was The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958). Lotsa monsters, including (among others) a (single) skeleton swordsman, a two-headed giant bird, a dragon, and of course the film’s emblematic cyclops, all beautifully done, and integrated into the actual story. I went to see it with my older cousin Diane at the Lyric theater in Blue Island. As with most Harryhausen films, the whole movie is not to be had on YouTube, but here’s another reasonably monster-y sampler.

By 1963, Harryhausen was the world master of stop-motion animation, and created another monster-saturated toga epic that is probably his best-known work: Jason and the Argonauts (1963; full 720p rip, not sure how they got away with it.) The Golden Fleece, Talos, the Hydra, a talking ship figurehead, harpies, Neptune (ok, not Harryhausen) lotsa dancing girls (ditto) and, oh, how marvelously: the Children of the Hydra’s Teeth. I was 11 and at the tail-end of my monster phase, but those guys scared me silly. Of all the wonders Harryhausen ever created, that climactic battle is what he’ll be remembered for a thousand years from now.

When I graduated 8th grade at 13, I traded monster movies for better things, like telescopes and electronics. Again, as I said yesterday, I’m sure I saw lots more that I don’t remember well enough to describe, probably because they were terrible. No matter. As the curtain came down on my monster era, I suddenly realized that I had a whole new category of Things To Be Afraid Of…girls.

But that’s a whole ‘nother story entirely.

Revisiting the Monsters of My Youth…

…on YouTube. I’ve been poking around on YouTube in my odd moments, looking for tutorials, music videos, cartoons, and anything else that popped into my head that might be sound and/or video. The other day, I went looking for monsters. And not just any monsters. What I searched for were the monsters I saw on TV when I was quite young. Some of them scared the hell out of me when I was 8 or 9. Some of them were so cheesy that I laughed at them even then. The really scary thing about this YouTube adventure is that I found every last one of them. (Or at least their trailers.) On YouTube. Most were free to watch in their entirety–not that I did.

First on my list was The Creeping Unknown, (1955) which in the UK was called The Quatermass Experiment. This got a lot of play when I was in grade school, and my father, having seen it on the family-room TV a few too many times, dubbed it The Creeping Kilowatt Crud. You can see the whole thing on YouTube. I wasn’t expecting it to be remastered to film resolution, which makes it look way better than it did on any of our TVs. I didn’t watch all of it. I mostly ran the slider across until I found “the good parts;” i.e., where they actually show the monster or at least the cool Heinleinian spaceship it rode in on. I vividly recall my annoyance at seeing most monster movies having a lot of talking and running around and (occasionally) some kissing (yukkh!) but…not much monster. The Creeping Unknown was better than most in that regard, though the monster was a not-quite-a-blob creature who was originally an astronaut who brought back an alien infection from…somewhere…and gradually turned into the monster. It crawled around and was eventually electrocuited on a repair scaffold somewhere inside Westminster Abbey, hence my father’s nickname for it.

I remembered the monster badly; I thought it was a true blob monster, but hey–at late 1950s TV resolution, it might as well have been. If you like period pieces, watch the whole thing. For the monster genre, it was surprisingly well done.

Not all were. For a true blob monster (which were a sort of Hollywood cottage industry in that era) I had to dredge up X the Unknown (1956.) It was an obvious ripoff of The Creeping Unknown, done on the cheap. The monster was a big black tarry glob that bubbles up out of a hole in the Scottish highlands and starts eating people. The monster didn’t get much screen time, but I remember one very well-executed shot of the monster rolling toward a town. I recognized the technique immediately: They had mixed up something viscous but cohesive, colored it black, and photographed it rolling down a sloping miniature set, with the camera in the plane of the set. On screen, it was a house-sized blob monster rolling down a country road on its merry way. Well-done, and scary in spots, even if the seams were often visible.

Much scarier in a body-horror way is a blob movie called Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1959.) (Italian titles; dubbed in English.) A sort of spaghetti monster movie, it came from Italy and scared the crap out of a lot of young Americans, myself included. A researcher in Mexico discovers that the Mayans didn’t just disappear; a blob monster ate them. And sunuvugun if the monster isn’t still there, and still hungry. The monster gets a reasonable amount of screen time, especially toward the end. And yes, it looks like a livingroom’s worth of bad ’70s carpeting dyed black with a couple of extras underneath it, pushing it around in bloblike ways. The scary parts are seeing what it does to the unfortunates it latches onto. Even when I was ten, I could tell the dialog did not match the lip movements of the actors. I didn’t care. Monsters are a language in and of themselves.

Sure, I watched it (back in the Sixties) but the less said about The Unknown Terror (1957) the better. I’ll give you a rank spoiler here and say that the monster looks a lot like…man-eating soapsuds.

Oddly, I never saw The Blob (1958) when I was a kid. Maybe the local TV stations thought it was too scary. Dunno. If it had been on Chicago’s Channel 7 (as most monster flicks were) well, I would have seen it. You can watch the whole thing (this time in color) at the link above. Lots of footage of the pinkish-purple Blob eating people, though as blobs go it was kind of featureless and, given the color they made it, did not carry much sense of menace.

So much for blobs. There are doubtless other blob movies that I haven’t heard of. (Got any?) Blobs, are, well, cheap, compared to dinosaurs or aliens. Now for a much better monster; indeed, one of my all-time favorites: 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957; the link is to a monster-rich excerpt) has a Ray Harryhausen animated monster. And, weirdly, the scriptwriter was the older sister of the nice lady who lived next door to where I grew up. Charlott Knight (1894-1977) used to come visiting from Hollywood circa 1960, and she would sit on the front porch of her sister’s house and tell stories to the neighborhood kids, including me. She told us she wrote 20 Million Miles to Earth, (which we had seen on TV more than once) and I admit I didn’t believe her at the time. It wasn’t until IMDB appeared that I could look her up, and…yes. That was her. She also played bit parts on Pettitcoat Junction. The monster in the movie (which Charlott called a “Ymir,” though the word is not used in the film itself) was the first I’d seen with a sympathetic edge. Astrononauts took an egg from Venus, brought it to Earth, and hatched the poor thing into a world its kind had never known. It grew quickly, though as best I recall the only thing it ate was sulfur. (The full movie, being a Harryhausen, is still being marketed and is not available on YouTube.) It gets loose in Rome, fights a hapless elephant, and is harrassed by the Italian military as it climbs around on the Colosseum, making a mess. By the end I felt sorry for it. Sympathetic monsters have since become a thing, but this is the oldest example I can think of. And I knew the person who thought it up, wow.

Now, I recall a childhood fear of robots. I dreamed once that a gigantic metal robot foot stomped on the Weinbergers’ house across the street. Where that came from is a bit of a mystery. Scary robots were less common than other monsters, and the ones I remember seeing weren’t all that scary. Gog (1954) starred two mini-tank robots built to ride a rocket into outer space. The robots were cool, though we don’t actually see them until half the film is over. In truth, they got very little screen time at all, and were not in fact the actual villains in the story. In Tobor the Great (1954) the robot was the good guy, as was Robbie in Forbidden Planet (1956).

For a real robot bad guy from my childhood, I have to cite Kronos (1957). The premise is stone-dumb: Aliens somewhere are running short on something, so they send a sort of gigantic robot battery to Earth to suck up all our electricity and take it home–so that the aliens can convert that energy into matter. (They must have run out of asteroids.) The robot itself, however, was unlike anything else in monster cinema: It consisted of two huge cubes connected by a neck, with a dome and a pair of antennae on top. It was several hundred feet tall. It had four cylindrical legs that went up and down, and some kind of rotating force cushion beneath it, or something. It lands on the Mexican coast, and marches north toward LA, stepping on Mexicans and sucking up energy from any powerplant it encounters. It even inhales the energy of a nuclear bomb, dropped on it by an actual B-36. Eventually they decide to short it out, and like any battery with a sufficiently low internal resistance would, it melts. Dumb as the premise was, Kronos the robot had considerable novelty value: It was not just some guy in a robot suit. The models and the opticals were pretty decent for 1957. It’s good enough to waste an hour and a half on the next time you catch a bad cold, though with a warning: There’s…kissing.

So, apart from Kronos, I’m not sure what gave me robotophobia as a five-year-old. Mutant dinosaurs like The Giant Behemoth (1959; nice 1080p rip) and Godzilla (1954) didn’t do much for me. Ditto Rodan (1956) and Gorgo (1961), though Rodan had his moments. Dinosaurs were already scary; making them even bigger did not make them any scarier. Mothra? (1962) A giant…moth? ummm…no. For real chills and grade-school nightmares, nothing in that era could compare to… The Crawling Eye (1958).

The film was made in England, and called The Trollenberg Terror over there. Mountain climbers in the Trollenberg (a German mountain range) start getting their heads torn off up at the summit. Cold-climate aliens are holed up in the crags somewhere, trying to get ahead. (Sorry.) When the supply of mountain climber heads thins out, they start edging down the mountain, looking for more.

I had literally not seen the film in fifty-odd years, and remembered the monsters badly. They were huge fat octopus-like things, with lots of squirmy tentacles and one great big bloodshot eye in the middle of it all. In 1965 or so, I thought the special effects people had cheaped out and painted a pupil on a beachball for the eye. It was better than that. You don’t have to take my word for it. And you don’t even have to watch the whole damned movie. Somebody with a serious monster fetish has copied out all the scenes that actually show the monster, and you can see it here. Got three and a half minutes to waste? That’s all it takes. Way back in the Sixties, we watched the whole thing for three minutes of monster. My research tells me that that’s not an aberration. That’s how the monster genre worked.

There were a lot of other monster flicks in that era. The ones I cite here are the ones I remember most vividly. The ones more easily forgotten had cheesy monsters or almost no monsters at all. Curse of the Demon was originally filmed without a visible monster. They put one in because everybody wanted to see the Demon. It was cheesy as…hell, heh. It was onscreen for maybe a minute and a half. I saw it once and that was plenty. I saw The She Creature, but it was a cheap ripoff of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and I confess I don’t recall anything but the fact that the monster was visibly female. The Monolith Monsters were gigantic crystals that grew and spread before the good guys do…something. (I forgot what.) My only clear impression is that the crystals would be relatively easy to outrun.

Oh, there were lots more. The Amazing Collosal Man (1957) and its way dumber sequel, War of the Collosal Beast (1958.) Reptilicus (1961) which I saw at an outdoor theater in Green Bay, with my cousins. The monster was a puppet; kind of like Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent, with fangs. The Giant Claw (1957.) It looked like an enormous turkey buzzard. I already knew what turkey buzzards looked like. Making one huge only made it look silly.

And on and on and on. We have better monsters these days, including some really scary robots, like AMEE from Red Planet (2000). (AMEE may be the scariest robot in any movie, ever.) And, of course, Alien/Aliens (1979/86), Predator (1987), Cloverfield (2008) and numerous others. The big difference is that I wasn’t ten years old when I saw Alien. (I was 27.) As I wrote here some years ago, monster movies are how young boys learn bravery. It was certainly true for me. Now, I can look back at the whole silly-ass genre…and laugh.

That was a lot harder in 1962, trust me.