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Odd Lots

Rant: Lots of Supermarkets

Twenty-odd years ago I remember reading a compendium of “real-world” ghost anecdotes. They weren’t stories, just individual reports from ordinary people who were not looking for ghosts but ran into them anyway. One of my favorites was a report from a widow in England who saw her recently deceased husband on the staircase every night for a week. The man looked happy, but said nothing until his final appearance, when he spoke one sentence: “There are lots of supermarkets where I live.” Then he winked out and she never saw him again.

Well. I can think of a lot of better things to tell your grieving spouse when you appear to them postmortem:

  • I’m all right.
  • I love you.
  • I forgive you.
  • God is good.
  • There is $10,000 in hundreds stuffed inside the living room couch.

But…lots of supermarkets in heaven? That is so unutterably weird that it lends credence to the report. Why would the widow make something like that up?

Maybe she didn’t. My experience here in Phoenix for the last month and a half suggests that it may not be so weird after all. Work with me here: Until six weeks ago, Carol and I lived on the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain near a town of about 400,000 people. Colorado Springs is not a small town, but we still had to drive 75 miles to Denver for certain things, like The Container Store and any useful bookstore that wasn’t Barnes & Noble. Today we live in America’s 6th largest city (instead of its 41st largest city) and if you toss in suburbs like Mesa and Scottsdale, the metro area has four and a half million residents.

Nor are we way out on the fringes of things, like we were when we lived in Cave Creek in the 1990s. We’re right down in the thick of it all, three blocks from tony Scottsdale and a little over a mile from the Kierland neighborhood, where the primary occupation is spending money by the livingroom couchful.

The amount of retail here is staggering, as is the number and sheer diversity of restaurants. I didn’t know that Mexican Asian food was a thing, but it is, albeit what sort of thing I’m not yet sure. (When I decide to find out, well, it’s just a few miles down Scottsdale Road.) Driving around the area, Carol and I go into a sort of Stendhal syndrome trance at times, boggling at the nose-to-tail storefronts and shopping centers within a couple of miles of us. It’s not like we’re hicks from the sticks; Colorado Springs is hardly the sticks. But we’ve never seen anything even remotely like it.

There is a supermarket called Fry’s Marketplace a few miles from us that is about twice the size of any other supermarket I’ve ever been in. They have a wine bar, a sushi bar, a substantial wine section (something we didn’t get in Colorado due to corrupt politics) and plenty of stuff that may or may not be appropriate for selling in grocery stores, like…livingroom couches. (Eminently stuffable ones, too.) Outside there’s covered parking and a car wash. Oh, and valet parking if you don’t want to walk in from the far corners of the lot.

Now…what if we were hicks from the sticks?

I wager that we’d pass out in astonishment. Yes, I know, we all get lectured a lot about how we shouldn’t obsess on material goods. So who’s obsessing? I think I come out better on this score than a lot of people; granted that I hoard variable capacitors and never met a radio tube I didn’t like, absent the occasional gassy 6AL5. Read this twice: There is a huge difference between wanting everything you see and seeing everything you want. I don’t want all that much, but I appreciate being able to get things that I do want, weird or uncommon though they might be.

I can empathize with that poor old dead guy in England somewhere. Perhaps he lived all his life in a village in Cornwall, and ate the same things all the time because the same things were all there were in his village. Maybe he was poor. Maybe he just got damned sick and tired of bubble and squeak. He knew the world was a richer place somewhere, but his own circumstances didn’t allow him to get there.

Then his heart gives out, and wham! God drops him out in front of some heavenly Fry’s Marketplace, where your credit cards have no limit and you never have to pay them off. (Maybe he met Boris Yeltsin there.) Good food, lots of it, and never the same thing twice? That could be all the heaven some people might want. I think I understand why he came back to tell his wife about it.

So. Like most people, my collection of loathings has swelled as I’ve passed through middle age. I don’t like green vegetables, and haven’t now for 63 years and change. Along the way I’ve picked up loathings for certain philosophies and people, like Marxism, Communism, and the sort of virtue-signaling wealthy socialistic urban elitist busybodies who buy $59 titanium pancake flippers and then wear torn jeans to show their solidarity with the working poor.

Far worse are the people who assume that their way is the right way, and that if I don’t see things their way, well, I’m a [something]-ist and deserve to be re-educated in the gulag of their choice.

Choice, heh. Choice is a good word. Freedom means choice. Choice does not mean overconsuming. Choice means being free to consume what I want, and not what some worthless meddling government apparatchik thinks I should want. I walked into Fry’s Marketplace. It was a wonderland. I walked out with a smile on my face and a bag of gemstone potatoes under my arm. That, my friends, is America.

Slander it at your peril, and ideally somewhere out of earshot of the rest of us.

Now Available: Souls in Silicon on Kindle and KU

Souls in Silicon: Tales of AI Confronting the Infinite

I am pleased to announce the Kindle ebook edition of Souls in Silicon, my second short fiction collection, containing all my stories about strong AI, plus excerpts from both The Cunning Blood and Ten Gentle Opportunities. It’s available for $2.99, or as part of your Kindle Unlimited subscription. No DRM.

The POD paperback edition has been available since 2008. I’ve updated the cover to a more legible font; the same font used in The Cunning Blood and Cold Hands and Other Stories. I’m evolving a line look here, and so far, I like it a lot. The original cover type font for Souls in Silicon was a little more atmospheric, but it didn’t read well on Amazon thumbnails. The cover art is the same 2008 drawing by Richard Bartrop, created specifically for the book.

The stories inside are all the stories I’ve written about strong AI that I’m pleased with:

  • “The Steel Sonnets”
  • “Guardian”
  • “Silicon Psalm”
  • “Marlowe”
  • “Borovsky’s Hollow Woman” (with Nancy Kress)
  • “Bathtub Mary”
  • “STORMY vs the Tornadoes”
  • “Sympathy on the Loss of One of Your Legs”

People who have followed my work closely since the beginning (there are a few) will notice that “Ariel” from Burchenal Green’s Tales of the Marvelous Machine isn’t here. It wasn’t in the POD paperback either. The reasons are complicated. “Ariel” centered on two characters from a failed novel that I was tinkering in 1980 and eventually abandoned as untenable. The theology, furthermore, is dicey. I know more now than I did then. A modern priest who grew up with computer technology would not have the reaction that Fr. Fiocca did to Ariel the AI.

So I’ve wondered here and there down the years if I should rewrite the story. If I did it would be a pretty radical rewrite. That decision will have to wait for another day; there’s too much to do in the meantime. I have one more significant story, a longish novella, that needs to be dealt with and posted on Kindle, but it has its own share of problems, which I’ll talk about in a future Contra entry.

In the meantime, Souls in Silicon is up there. Go get it. Don’t forget to drop a review on Amazon when you can.

Right now, I have stuff to write. Lots of stuff.

Odd Lots

Ten Gentle Opportunities: Go Get It!

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In case you hadn’t gotten the word yet, this morning Amazon cleared my upload of Ten Gentle Opportunities, and it’s now in the catalog, ready to buy for $2.99, or as part of your Kindle Unlimited subscription. No DRM. Cover by the utterly amazing Blake Henriksen. It’s in a genre that barely exists anymore: Humorous SF and fantasy, with a pinch of satire for those with ears to listen. I tried to shop it to tradpub imprints for a couple of years after I finished it in 2012. An editor at a major press told me that Douglas Adams did SF humor so well that nobody else can ever hope to compete.

Huh? That’s like saying that Heinlein did hard SF so well that nobody else should bother to try. Well, dammit, I’m competing. More than one of my beta readers said the book kept them up all night, and one called it “pee-your-pants funny.” Me, I consider that a win.

The book has an interesting history. I’ve been fooling with it for almost fifty years.

Here’s the story. Back in 1967, when I was 15, I got an idea: What if there were a sort of partial or incomplete magician who could change magical spells, but not create them? What sort of mischief could he get into? I called him The Spellbender, and started writing a story about him. I shared it with the writer girl down the street, and we talked about collaborating on it. Nothing came of that, because she and I had utterly incompatible understandings of magic. She saw it as a sort of moody, ethereal, hard-to-control spiritual discipline. I saw it as alternative physics. (We had other issues as well; when I finally meet God I’m going to ask him if He could please flash the human firmware and get rid of puberty.)

Not much happened on the story. I had a short catalog of gimmicks and little else. The Spellbender had a sidekick who was an incompetent djinn named Shrovo. Not only could he not remember how many wishes he gave people, he simply couldn’t count, and so had had his djinn license revoked for reckless and excessive wishgranting. Sure, it sounds dumb. I was 15.

I eventually got bored with it and tossed it back in the trunk, where it stayed until 1978. That year I read it over, dumped Shrovo, and told another tale about the Spellbender, which I presented at the Windy City Writers’ Workshop, in front of luminaries like George R. R. Martin and Gene Wolfe. Nobody liked it. Back in the trunk it went.

Come 1983, I had become a close friend of Nancy Kress, and we surprised one another by collaborating on a novelette that was published in Omni and drew a surprising amount of favorable buzz. If we could pull off “Borovsky’s Hollow Woman,” well, what else could we do? Nan suggested a contemporary fantasy, and I was quick to sketch out still another take on the spellbender concept, adding in the sort of universe-jumping gimmick that Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt had used to such good effect in the Harold Shea stories. A spellbender who had gotten on the wrong side of a magician jumps universes to finds a place to hide, and lands in a small-town advertising agency in our near future. Nan was working for precisely such an agency at the time, and told the story of a staff meeting at which someone was talking emphatically about tangential opportunities, which Nan heard as “ten gentle opportunities.” I knew a great title when I saw one, and grabbed it.

I also drew on a novelette I wrote in 1981, which centered on a war in a robotic copier factory, and an AI named Simple Simon.

We tried. We really did. But as it turned out, Nan could move in a hard SF world a great deal more nimbly than I was able to move in a fantasy world. Shades of Lee Anne down the street. (Puberty, at least, was no longer an issue.) After a few thousand words she ceded me what we had and we decided to set it aside. Back in the trunk it went, this time for almost 25 years.

The Cunning Blood came out in hardcover in 2005, and garnered enough rave reviews (including one from Glenn Reynolds and another from Tom Easton at Analog) to make me feel like I should start something else. As was my habit, I went digging around in my trunk for concepts. Three aborted novels came to hand: My cyberpunk experiment, The Lotus Machine; a gimmicky hard SF concept called Alas, Yorick; and Ten Gentle Opportunities. The Lotus Machine went back in the trunk almost immediately; by now I understand that, as cyber as I might be, punk remains forever beyond my powers. I spent a fair amount of time reading and meditating on the 14,000 words I had of Alas, Yorick, but ultimately went with Ten Gentle Opportunities. Why? I like humor and I’m intrigued by the challenges of writing it. I had an ensemble of interesting characters, and the very rich vein of “fish out of water” humor to mine. And–gakkh–it was fun! Can’t have that now; we’re serious SF writers…

Basically, I went with fun. And it was.

I wrote three or four chapters in 2006, then got distracted by another concept that I’ve mentioned here, Old Catholics. TGO didn’t exactly go back in the trunk, but I didn’t touch it again until February 2011. That’s when I took it to this new writer’s group I’d joined. I submitted the first thousand words or so for critique and asked them if the concept was worth pursuing. The answer was yes, and it was unanimous.

I took it to Walter Jon Williams’ Taos Toolbox workshop that summer, and got my momentum back. After that it was my main writing project until I finished it in November 2012. I asked my nonfiction agent to shop it, and some shopping got done, but there were no nibbles. So several months ago I took it back and decided to publish it myself.

Oh–and then we kicked into high gear with our move to Phoenix. Writing of all sorts went on the back burner.

Which brings us to the current day. There’s a lot to be done yet here in the new house, but the end is at least in sight. We’re far enough along that I can afford to take a couple of days a week to Just Write. Which brings me (again) to the question of what I do now.

Truth is, I don’t know. But I’ll think of something.

Odd Lots

When it Starts to Feel Like Home

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Well, I’m back. Back from being incommunicado, mostly, and (almost) back from being nose-deep in boxes in dire need of emptying. I’m now not quite calf-deep in boxes, having emptied sixteen today alone, twelve of them boxes of books. Carol polished the last two Hundavad bookshelves yesterday, and today I filled them. I think there are maybe three more boxes of books, possibly four. Overall, I think fewer than 25 boxes remain to be emptied.

That’s serious progress.

Our biggest single problem for our first two weeks here was getting access to the Internet. Yes, we probably got more done per unit time without Facebook to mess with, but I don’t like being completely disconnected. Cox Cable had to run brand new coax from the node in the alley to the house. My guess is that the existing coax was damaged when the house was gutted to the walls in 2003 and rebuilt. (Bulldozers and Bobcat front-loaders can do that.) It took two weeks, during which we were eating out a lot at places with free Wi-Fi, especially Wildflower Bread Company but occasionally Einstein’s Bagels.

The previous owner had Dish, and evidently never used cable. He had coax outlets in every room in the house, including the master bathroom. All of it came together behind a panel in one of the walk-in closets. (Above.) Some cables are marked, many aren’t, and I have no clue what the unmarked cables are about. So, mostly, I’m ignoring them. We have little interest in TV to begin with, and I’m going to explore streaming from the Internet to our big wi-fi enabled Samsung TV. When the Cable Guy came yesterday morning to hook up the new coax, he found which cable from the ratsnest above went out to the box outside the house, dropped in a cable modem, and handed me a Cat 5E patch cord. I had literally hung an old Wireless G router on a nail next to the panel, and connected the four switch ports to the four Cat 5 sockets in the panel. (It’ll do until I get an 802.11ac router and build a more elegant mount for it.) I plugged in the patch cord, and It Just Worked.

Yeah, I know, it sounds lame, but it didn’t really feel like home here without broadband. Now it does. We don’t even have a kitchen table (we’re shopping) and have been eating all our at-home meals at the island breakfast bar, but it still feels like home. Bit by bit, other things are falling into place as well: I drilled and tapped two holes in a Linksys 5-port switch and made an aluminum bracket for it to hold it to my temporary computer table, and that helped. (Making my drill press turn over for the first time in who knows how many weeks felt peculiarly good.) But bottom line, it was broadband that did the trick.

Much remains to be done. I need to get my VHF discone assembled and mounted on the roof. We need to get a diningroom table. I need to wire my lathe to the new 220V feed in the wall beside it. My workshop needs, well, work. And then there are those 25 remaining boxes…

It’ll all get done.

Happy new year, everybody. There’s much to write, and I can (finally) see some quality writing time heaving up over the horizon. In the meantime, expect more Contra. Alas, expect some delay in my getting Ten Gentle Opportunities posted on Kindle. Life happens, and always takes longer than you expect.

It does, however, happen. More later.

Tripwander

Colorado really didn’t want us to leave Colorado, and did its damndest to follow us down to Phoenix. We got underway Friday afternoon, having spent the morning tidying up the house and making sure that everything else was in order. There was a snowstorm on the forecast for Saturday, and I really wanted to get over Raton Pass before the first flakes fell, tired as we both were.

The weather was gorgeous, and we got over the pass late afternoon, stopping in Las Vegas NM for the night. My intuition was valid: We awoke Saturday morning to a glowering sky and much lower temps. So we piled the Pack into the Durango and blasted south. By Albuquerque it had started to snow. We got onto westbound I-40 with the wipers still on intermittent, and got almost to Grants before things got ugly.

And once they got ugly, they got ugly fast. We could see the cell on Weatherbug’s radar. It went from nothing to red in almost no space at all. The glowering sky became a blizzard in the space of half a mile or less. Visibility was only a few hundred feet. Predictably, there were crackpots blasting past us at 80+ MPH. I considered stopping, but the right shoulder was relatively narrow and we were a biggish target. So we slithered on, with snowflakes the size of “Have a Nice Day” stickers splatting against the windshield.

As quickly as it began, it ended. The splatting and slithering, however, were not over. We got another hundred miles or so, and crossed the state line into Arizona, before the skies opened again. This time it was sleet. The cell wasn’t as intense, but it was a great deal larger, and I white-knuckled it for over forty minutes until it faded out into rain and then mist. The universe suffers no shortage of crackpots, all of whom were determined to get to Winslow by noon or die trying. A couple of them had to be doing 90…in a sleet storm. What was truly boggling is that we only saw one car in the ditch, with no evidence that it had rolled or struck anything else.

Fifteen miles past Winslow the sun came out. By the time we got to Flagstaff it was 4 PM and the roads were dry. We spent the night at a Quality Inn that was just a notch and a half shy of false advertising. The rooms didn’t even have fire sprinklers, and the outside stairways to the second floor were falling apart and roped off with yellow “Police Line” tape.

The next morning it was sunny, and four degrees above zero, mostly par for Flagstaff in mid-December. We hung out in Flagstaff until the Sun had had some time to work on the road ice. But once we blasted south on I-17, the sky was clear and the pavement almost entirely dry. We got down the Mogollon Rim with knuckles no whiter than usual, and rolled into our new driveway at 2:30 PM.

Colorado wasn’t quite done with us. We emptied the car under cold (by Phoenix standards) but clear skies, and after an excellent meat lovers’ pizza at Humble Pie, we mostly sat around reading trashy novels and trying to make our hair lie flat again after a long day of dancing with freezing storm cells. I dipped into Monster Hunter Nemesis, trying to dope out what it is that makes Larry Correia’s adventures so damned good. In short (for this volume at least): Monsters, guns, endless action, more guns, and, well, Frankenstein as a sort of paranormal Man in Black. I powerfully recommend the Monster Hunter International series, with one caveat: Start at the beginning. There are running jokes, background character arcs, and much else that will leave you scratching your head unless you start with Book 1 and go from there.

Come Monday morning, the Arizona Sun was gone, and it was once more cold and raining. It rained off and on most of the day. This morning, it was 30 degrees with a frost on everything exposed to the sky. Like I said, Colorado didn’t want to let us go. Phoenix barely gets frosts in February, much less before winter actually begins. We didn’t mind; frost kills scorpions, and the fewer scorpions around here, the happier I’ll be. Besides, if Global Cooling ever becomes a Real Thing, I’d rather be here than Up Nawth, staring down blizzards every weekend and monitoring glaciertracker.com with a nervous eye. My hometown was once under a mile of ice, and whereas I often think it’s only what they deserve, I’d just as soon not have Robert Frost’s (!) marvelous little poem come true. (My long-term research suggests that hate trumps desire.)

We’re doing errands today, and generally vamping until tomorrow morning, when The Big Truck O’ Stuff shows up and things get aerobic again. We don’t yet have Internet at the house and are waiting for Cox Cable to dig a new trench from the node in the alley to the house. So again, what you see here has been uploaded from a coffee shop or restaurant, which we at best will visit once a day. I’ll be a little scarce until Cox builds our own personal Information Superhighway. Then again, it’s not like we won’t have enough to keep us busy between now and then, whenever “then” happens to be.

There’s much to write; in fact, not writing at length for over a month has left me very antsy. It’s almost a physical need, and right now it’s not being met.

I’ll keep you posted as best I can. In the meantime, I gotta go throw a couple of old bedsheets over my oranges, lemons, and limes. The world may be warming somewhere. It’s sure as hell not warming here.

Seeing (Or Not Seeing) Spots

Above is the image of the Sun’s disk posted today on SpaceWeather.com. The sunspot number is 26. Here’s an experiment you can do yourself: Save the image off the page to disk, bring it up in an image browser, and zoom out until it’s about the size of (…a silver dollar? Nobody knows what those are anymore…) a spray can lid, or something else measuring two inches or under.

Now, how many sunspots can you see?

Imagine yourself an astronomer in 1700, using a telescope made with skills and understanding of optics available at the time, to project the Sun onto a card or a wall. How many sunspots would you see?

Be honest: Zip. Zero. None.

This is the problem we have comparing solar activity today with solar activity 200 or 250 years ago: People then did not have the instruments we have today, so the counts really don’t compare. Some efforts have been made to address this, but it’s really an unsolvable problem if we want accurate comparisons of sunspots in 1700 to sunspots today.

My point, which is hardly original with me, is that we see and count spots today that could not have been seen in 1700. So we may already be sliding into a Maunder-class solar minimum. If solar cycle 25 (roughly 2019-2030) is as weak as they’re predicting, it may exhibit few if any sunspots that astronomers in 1700 would have seen.

Nobody knows what this means. The Sun has been slowly going to sleep since its Grand Maximum in 1958 during cycle 19. I’m not going to claim that solar activity is the sole governor of climate, but it’s a major contributor. (And yes, you hotheads, I freely admit that CO2 does contribute to global warming. We’re still arguing about how much. Remember that you may not use the word “denier” in my comments.) My point is that most of us will live long enough to see whether sunspot counts are in any way a proxy for global temperature.

My blood oxygen issue is the major reason we’re moving to Phoenix. It’s by no means the only one.

Samples from the Box of No Return

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I’m packing my office closet, and realized that The Box of No Return was overflowing. So in order to exercise my tesselation superpower on it, I had to upend it on my office floor and repack it from scratch.

I hadn’t done that in a very long time.

You may have a Box of No Return. It’s downstairs from the Midwestern Junk Drawer, hidden behind the Jar of Loose Change. It’s for stuff you know damned well you’ll never use again, but simply can’t bring yourself to throw away. A lot of it may be mementos. Some of it is just cool. Most of it could be dumped if you were a braver (and less sentimental) man than I.

I took some representative samples and laid them out rectilinearly on the carpet for a quick photo. Behold my 1970s Xerox photo ID, 3,000 yen of Japanese folding money, a Wizard of Speed and Time button, a tooth from a cow–and a couple of dead crowns of my very own. Name badges from obsolete callsigns, Comdex buttons, a 2708 EPROM without the quartz plate over the chip, a packet of real gold leaf, a sealing wax candle from my early correspondence with Carol, ROTC insignia, and two of the weird little HP thingamabobs that I still haven’t identified. (Scroll down to the February 9 entry.) There’s a shell case from the 21-gun salute the VFW fired at my father’s funeral in 1978, Carol’s GT membership badge (mine has been lost) and lots of keys for locks long forgotten. (I did find the keys for my Kennedy toolchest in the garage, so I guess it’s The Box That Asymptotically Converges on No Return.) There’s a Space Shuttle rubber stamp and my Iguanacon badge, to stand in for the 20-odd con badges in the box. The red cylinder is a medium-format film can, into which the Fox Patrol crammed a reasonable first aid kit in 1965, and won the prize for best first aid kit.

I tossed a couple of things, like my SFWA membership badge. SFWA wanted to get rid of me for years for not publishing often enough; I saved them the trouble. Rot in irrelevancy, you dorks; I’m an indie now, and making significant money. Some promo buttons were for products I couldn’t even recall, and they went in the cause of making room. But most of it will go back in the (small) box, and it will all fit, with room to spare for artifacts not yet imagined, much less acquired.

If you have a Box of No Return, dump it out on the floor every few years. (I haven’t been through mine since the mid-90s.) You may be surprised what’s in there. I was.