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Monthwander

Haven’t posted here in awhile, and in truth I have no viable excuses. I’ve been out of energy a lot, which concerns me, though I suspect it’s probably just being 66. Part of it is the depression of knowing that QBit, now 14, is dying of lymphoma. Well, the mobile vet came by today and told us that she can’t feel his swollen lymph nodes anymore. QBit was diagnosed last June, and a (different) vet told us he’d be gone in two months. Ten months after his diagnosis, he’s still playing dog soccer and still galloping down the main hall when he’s on his way to a meal. He’s mostly deaf and doesn’t see real well, but he can smell a jerky treat on the other side of the house. Part of our success may be do to a product called Apocaps, which encourage apoptosis (i.e., suicide) of cancer cells. Bio isn’t my field and I don’t know how it works, but it appears to work as designed. It’s not cheap, but it’s cheaper than doggie chemo and doesn’t make him uncomfortable. It’s bought us months with him that I suspect we wouldn’t have had otherwise. And no, it’s not a cure. There will be an end, but the end is not in sight.

Most of the energy deficit, I suspect, comes from the energy expense of trying to keep things straight on our megamonstrous pool, deck, and patio remodel. We have a design. There are blueprints. Subcontractors, however, can be slippery. We’ve caught them in a couple of booboos before anything irreversible was done. Every time one of the subcontractors comes out, we watch them like hawks, and gently make sure that the crew knows we’re watching. If I see something that doesn’t align with the blueprint, I go out with my copy and start asking questions. This general approach works very well, though it’s time and energy-intensive.

One of the other issues is just getting the work done. Lots was supposed to be done this week. So far, nothing has–and it’s Friday. The waterline tile for the pool was put in last Saturday, though the contractor didn’t finish the job. That was a week ago. The new pool deck and sidewalk to the back door was poured three or four weeks ago, and coated with the “cool deck” material a week ago Wednesday. It’s gorgeous. They did a terrific job. Which is good: The old 1974-vintage deck was hot 70s pink, and badly coated with tan paint of some kind. The paint was flaking off, exposing the original hot pink deck. There were cracks all over, and some of the corners were just coming out in chunks.

Much of the work involving the pool was filling in the deep end. They had to chip off all the plaster, and then brought in 44 tons of roadbed material to take the depth from 9 1/2 feet up to 5. The fill was tamped thoroughly with a jumping jack machine. Then they laid down some rebar, (see below) and used gunite to create a new floor for the deep end that (roughly) aligned with the depth of the shallow end. All that is done now.

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It looked horrendous for a long time, especially since a week or more would sometimes go by without any work being done at all. Once the concrete for the deck was poured, it began to look like a swimming pool again, especially after the waterline tile went in.

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The new deck is wider for a reason: The older, narrow deck took some corners without a lot of room to maneauver, and all of the Pack except for QBit have missed a turn and gone into the drink. We’ve always been there to haul them out (they’re never in the yard without us, and have a fenced run to potty in) but wet Bichons have to be dried carefully or their hair will turn to felt. So we try to avoid having them get wet. (They’re good with that.)

The pool still looks gnarly and will until the plasterers show up. That was supposed to be Wednesday. No deal. So we’ll continue to wait. It’s certainly a lot less gnarly than it was:

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The other part of the project was extending our 10′ X 29′ roofed patio another 12 feet into the yard, with a new Alumawood shade structure over the extension, plus a new built-in barbecue grill. The entire 29′ X 32′ patio has travertine pavers now. The block-and-stucco barbecue shell is done. It will have a matching travertine top, and will be plumbed into the house’s natural gas main.

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The two posts in the photo are the two corner supports of the Alumawood shade structure. It’s going to be beautiful when it’s done. We’re probably a month out still before the last details are put to bed. Summer is icumen in; it was a very pleasant 72 today, but we’ve already had a few 95-ish days and lots of 80s. I do wish they’d pick up the pace a little.

I’ve also spent a lot of energy on Dreamhealer, my work-in-progress. The novel was getting long. Decisions had to be made: By the time a novel is 3/4 done, the protagonist’s Dark Moment should have already occurred. I was at 78,000 words and realized that Larry’s crisis was another 10,000 words off. I was forced to go back and carve out a whole character arc. It made sense once I realized that young teen James Jefferson Lane Jr. and his little sister Vickie were fun but didn’t help the novel move toward its conclusion. Cutting 8,000 words out of a novel always hurts. The pain was alleviated a little when I realized that I could flesh out Jimmy Jeff’s arc and make it a complete side-story, tied in with the novel but not an integral part of it. It’s also another SKU that I can sell for 99c on Kindle.

Dreamhealer is currently at 73,000 words, and closing in on Larry’s Dark Moment. The first draft completion date is supposed to be May 20. I am not a fast writer, granting that my finished first drafts need a lot less polishing than most people’s. I know how the novel ends, but am still a little fuzzy on how to get there from here. I vividly remember sitting in my chair in front of The Cunning Blood without a clue as to what should happen next. Then I started tapping keys. Apres moi, le scene. Do that enough, and you finish the novel. That doesn’t mean the process doesn’t get a little nerve-wracking in spots.

What energy remains I have spent exploring Minds.com and trying to figure out how EOS works. There’s something called Everipedia that works over EOS. It sounds a lot more like my 1994 All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything essay than Wikipedia. It’s distributed, based on blockchain tech, and has a process for becoming an editor that I still haven’t entirely figured out. The whole thing is gnarly as hell, but if that’s the future, I’d better stick a finger in and see what knowledge I can lick off. If it’s not the future, well, I’ll at least have been forced to figure out blockchain.

So bear with me. Lots going on here. Chronic fatigue may simply come from attempting too much, especially now in my midlate 60s. Things progress. We’ll see.

The Cunning Blood Is 20 Years Old

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Hard to believe: I finished the first draft of The Cunning Blood twenty years ago today, on March 27, 1999. I created a progress spreadsheet and used it to store a word count for every day that I added to the manuscript.The spreadsheet does not cover the whole novel. I created it when I was about 50,000 words in. There is a date on every entry, which allows me to gauge how often I wrote, and how much I wrote on any given day. My maximum word count was 5,162. My minimum was 33. The median was about 1,800. The total finished word count for the first draft was 135,680, which grew to about 143,000 after some edit passes and a couple of added scenes for continuity’s sake. I don’t remember when I started writing it, but I’m pretty sure (based on some emails I shared with friends about the project) that it was sometime in October 1997.

That book was hard work.

What boggles me today is how much of it was concocted without my conscious knowledge. Through most of the story I was not just flying by the seat of my pants; I was flying without any pants at all. I frequently had no idea what a chapter would contain until I started writing it. It got worse than that: I did not know that Geyl Shreve would detonate a long line of LPG gas tank railroad cars with a pocket missile until three paragraphs before she did it. There was a little planning here and there, but not much. As best I can figure, the novel self-assembled somehow in my subconscious, and came out pretty clean with almost no outlining or planning ahead of the current position of the cursor. I had to exert some force-of-will toward the end, when I was way past my target length of 100,000 words and part of me still wanted to toss in new story arcs and new characters. (That’s a problem I have to this day.)

I learned a lot about how to write a novel, that’s fersure.

I mention all this history here because a lot of people think that because the novel was first published in hardcover in the fall of 2005, that I wrote it in 2004. Uh-uh. I sent it to several publishers between 1999 and 2005 without much luck. Betsy Mitchell of Aspect (an imprint of Time Warner now belonging to Hachette Group) was polite and encouraging, but ultimately turned it down. Tor responded to a query and requested the manuscript–and then ghosted me. Really: After I sent the manuscript to them in March 2001, I never heard from them again. Ever. I sent email queries, which were never answered. I finally sent a written letter withdrawing the manuscript from consideration in July 2002. I didn’t get a response. They did not return the manuscript. Just silence. Dead silence. My long, gradual entry into the SF indie camp began that summer, and I’ve never looked back. These days, Manhattan needs writers way more than writers need Manhattan.

I eventually sold the novel to a small press in the Chicago suburbs, and they did a pretty good job with it, especially in terms of getting reviews. I got a rave in Analog, and a strong endorsement from Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, along with other very good press. However, I’m not entirely sure that the hardcover ever saw the inside of a bookstore. (The Colorado Springs public library did buy two copies, which astounded me.)

Some of the problems selling the novel may have been due to what little politics I put in it, which had a libertarian slant with a huge footnote: I’m willing to admit that there is no such thing as utopia, and did not portray either Earth nor its prison planet Hell as fiat utopias. Nor were they dystopias. All societies have problems of one sort or another. As the Sangruse Device put it in the story: There are different kinds of freedom, and different kinds of imprisonment. I’m not sure I could state the novel’s theme more concisely than that.

It doesn’t matter. I was exploring ideas. I was not preaching any sermons. I had a big potful of ideas and was having fun with them. I had set out to write the ultimate action/adventure hard SF story. Judging by reader reactions since 2005 and (especially) since the ebook’s release in 2015, I think I succeeded.

Publishing a trade paperback edition through CreateSpace at the end of 2018 finally brought the project to a close. It’s sold well: up in the thousands, all editions taken together, and probably made me more money as an indie title than it would have under a big Manhattan imprint.

The big question, of course, is what to do next. I’m 77,000 words into Dreamhealer, and starting to pull all the plot threads together. I hope to finish it before the end of May. After that, well, it’s either something about the drumlins or The Molten Flesh. People have been pestering me for a sequel to The Cunning Blood since it first hit print in 2005. (My alpha readers have been pestering me even longer.) I have a couple of characters and a concept, plus a growing pot of ideas. I don’t have a plot. I tried to outline it. My subconscious basically said, No deal. (Right brains can be funny that way.) I may not know how any of the story goes until three paragraphs before I write it. That strategy has worked before. It’s worked (with greater or lesser success) all through Dreamhealer, though I’ve had to take a whip to my right brain here and there to keep it on task. Do I trust my subconscious enough to try it again?

Do I have a choice? Heh. We’ll damned well see.

How Shark Nerds Learned to Run the Projector

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Carol’s sister Kathy and her husband Bob came out to visit this past week. Their mission (among others) was to get out of Chicagoland’s frigid temps and snow. So what did we have here during their visit? Frigid (if not Chicago-frigid) temps…and snow. Not exactly where we live, but my friend Debbie said snow stuck to the ground in Fountain Hills, a Phoenix suburb a few miles east of us. And yes, the temps dipped below freezing in our neighborhood on more than one occasion. Plus, we scored an inch and a half of rain in a couple of days. The photo below shows the view from Bell and Hayden looking north, toward Skull Mesa and Continental Mountain. In all the years we’ve lived here (going on twenty, in two stretches) I’ve never seen that range go white from top to bottom. A little snow on the tops, now and then, sure, but not snow covered.

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Timing, timing. Kathy says they’ll be back when it’s in the 100s. I can’t make many promises on behalf of Phoenix weather, but I’ll confidently promise that there will not be frost in the yard here in June.

So we stayed inside a lot. One of our other missions was to evaluate Carol’s family’s home movies. There’s a place here in Scottsdale that will convert 8mm movies to digital movie files. What we wanted to figure out is what reels are worth converting (the process is not cheap) and what can be left in the box. Carol and I have had her father’s movie projector in various closets for a lot of years. We took it out and set it on the coffee table, after dropping a spare white sheet over our big-screen TV. Bob and I stared at it. And it soon dawned on us: Shark nerds we were not.

The device is a Bell & Howell Filmo Regent 122, Model L. I can’t nail down a vintage tighter than “1940s” from online searches. That’s about right: Carol’s dad had a movie camera in the late 1940s, and it stands to reason he’d buy a projector at the same time. Bob’s family had had one long ago as well, but (as with Carol’s) the dads ran the projectors, and the kids watched the movies. As for me, we got into the 8mm movie scene late, and started with the 1965-vintage Super 8. We still have that projector, but it’s self-feeding and requires almost no fussing-with. (That is, when it worked, which it doesn’t.) Reviewing Super 8 movies from my childhood will require a functional projector. I’m working on that.

No matter. What we had were 8mm movies. And we were determined to watch them.

We had a rough idea how they worked. Bob recalled that you had to form two film loops above and below the lens. There were loads of little levers, which we dutifully stared at, rubbing our chins. Then Carol spoke the obvious: “Go find a tutorial on YouTube.” Shazam! Not one but several…actually, they were legion. And once we figured out from the tutorials what all the levers did, getting the film threaded was no more than a severe nuisance. At my house back in the ’60s, we just fed the end of the film leader into a slot, and the projector did the rest. This took a lot more careful work. Some of the films were well over sixty years old, and fragile.

With practice, we got better and faster at it. And we had a lot of practice. It took two nights to go through them all, what with manual threading and manual rewind. Carol’s dad had spliced a lot of the little reels together into several larger, 25 minute reels, but the bulk of the reels were the 50′, five minute size just as they came out of the camera.

Most of the footage was of Carol and Kathy from birth to 15 or 16, at weddings, family vacations, dance recitals, and just running around in the yard. One of the first things we noticed is that once she was three or four, any time Carol was on camera, she was dancing. Carol, of course, is a spectacular dancer, as I’ve learned at various events down through the almost fifty years that we’ve been together. She started early, and went at it with manic enthusiasm and supernatural grace.

There were people in the movies whom Carol and Kathy had rarely seen, especially their grandparents, who (like mine) mostly died when we were small children. Overall, the films were well worth preserving as digital files, with only a few exceptions.

It was also yet another rubbing-of-the-nose in how far we’ve come since our childhoods. My Canon G16 camera takes brilliant, hi-res video. Heck, my phone takes perfectly fine video, if not as good as the G16’s. I have a Nikon film SLR, and my father’s medium-format Graflex. I doubt I will use either again. I suspect most young people have never experienced taking a roll of used film to Walgreen’s (or somewhere else like that) for processing, and then waiting a week for the pictures to come back. Bad shots cost the same 30c each as the good ones, so learning by trial and error was costly.

All gone, gone and mostly forgotten, except by those of us who thought we were shark nerds…but were wrong.

Slow-Mo Espresso

I first heard about the Espresso Book Machine in 2001, back when it was called PerfectBook 080. That machine is now old enough to vote, yet…where are they? I was talking about that question in the mid-oughts, and described what I called just-in-time bookstores (which were in fact gumball machines for printed books) in 2006. A recent piece in the New York Post suggests that the machines are indeed out there, and are in fact being installed in bookstores for on-demand printing of books.

Well, it’s 2019 and ebooks have raced past the print-on-demand (POD) tortoise at about .25 C. You don’t hear a great deal about POD books anymore. I used to sell quite a few in the early-mid oughts, when I mounted several titles on Lulu and Amazon’s now-shuttered CreateSpace. As ebooks have become cheap and easy, POD books are a much harder sell. I wish Shakespeare & Co. (see the NYP link above) all the best, but whereas the concept sounds great on paper it may well be impossible to implement as more than an isolated and little-used oddity.

Why so? The bulk of it is simple copyright: Beyond public domain titles, the stores would have to have some sort of contractual agreement with publishers to print books, along with a usable print image. (These are generally but not always PDF files.) Publishers are reluctant for a number of reasons:

1. They don’t really know how to negotiate such a contract. How much should the publisher get? How much should the store get? How much would the authors get? Under what circumstances can the contract be terminated? With book publishing in the parlous state that it is, figuring this out would not be easy. Why? Once precedents of this sort are set, they become expectations and are hard to break. Publishers have no history here, and would basically have to guess. Bad guesses could be fatal over the long run.

2. Publishers want to protect conventional bookstores and chains. Publishers and big store chains have a fragile but necessary symbiotic relationship. Small booksellers with Espresso machines would nibble away at that relationship by making big-box bookstores even less necessary than they are today. If Barnes & Noble were to shut down, there would be publisher blood in the streets of Manhattan. Espresso machines in espresso shops would just hurry that apocalypse along.

3. This is probably the big one: If a book’s source file(s) escape a bookstore’s control, they’ll be all over the Internet, and anybody with a laser printer or access to a POD machine can create bootleg copies. This actually happened to me: The publisher print image file for my book Assembly Language Step By Step escaped its publisher’s control and was everywhere, just six weeks after the book was published in 2009. Bookstores are notoriously fluky operations, with lots of turnover and quirky people. One part-timer with a thumb drive in his pocket would be all it took. I’ve studied file piracy in detail over the past twenty years. This is a real fear.

4. Espresso machines are not cheap. They cost about $80,000 and up depending on speed and sophistication. Most firms rent them, with periodic maintenance included in the rental. I have no good numbers for that, but Espresso uses xerographic printers and I was a Xerox repair tech forty-odd years ago. Those machines are messy and touchy. Something gets a little out of line and the machine ceases to work. So it may not be an option for tiny storefront shops, especially if publishers aren’t on board.

5. Here’s the insight I bring to the issue: Near-term, espresso bookstores are likely to be opportunities for small, very small, and indie publishers. It would cost a bookstore very little to host a print image that might be ordered twice a year. PDF files for mostly textual works like SF novels are very compact. (Heavily illustrated books, of course, require larger files, but not that much larger.) Small/indie press would be far more likely to cut deals with the bookstores than Macmillan or Wiley. They have a lot less to lose, and a whole lot more to gain.

So where does all this leave us? Alas, I’m nowhere near as bullish on POD as I was even six or seven years ago. I attribute this to the promotion of smartphones to mini-tablets. I myself have a “phablet” (a Samsung Note 4) and I love it. I also do exponents more reading on it than I ever thought I would back when I bought it toward the end of 2015. (And this is true evenn though I have other readers with much larger screens.) Basically, almost everybody who partakes of modern life today has an ebook reader in their pocket, and some of them are actually called “ebook readers.” People have become used to reading genre fiction on small screens. It’s a tougher call for technical nonfiction containing figures, photos, or code. I have read technical books on my Lenovo Yoga convertible, and it’s…so-so.

Back in their heyday, the pulps were considered disposable books. You read them once, maybe kept them for a little while (the bathroom was possibly their final redoubt) and then threw them away. Fiction ebooks work like that: People read a novel once…and then, having done its job, it vanishes into the archives. It may never emerge from the archives again, but with terabyte drives in increasingly small devices, who cares? You’d have to read a lot of SFF to fill one of those.

POD will continue to make a certain amount of sense for science, tech, and history books, or any other genre that depends on fixed page-layout specifics. Reflowable tech books are just hideous. The big question is whether that sort of nonfiction is enough of a market to float a maintenance-hungry beast like an Espresso Book Machine in the basement of a bookstore. Given how long that question’s been hanging in the air, my guess is that the decision’s already been made.

Monthwander

I haven’t been darkening my own doorway here much over the last month. Part of it is an aversion to political posts. The left has made just about everything political in one dimension or another. Topics are not as common as they once were. It was also a quiet January with (thankfully) few crises to report. We spent a considerable amount of time getting ready for The Big Backyard Overhaul, which begins tomorrow. I’ll take some photos and vids of the demolition of our waterfall and our pool, which is having its deep end removed. The waterfall was nothing special: a jumble of mini-boulders in an aggregate of mortar. It looked like somebody dumped a few tons of granite in a pile and then just slopped mortar into the cracks. The boulder pile is there to prevent people from installing a diving board. At least for us, they needn’t have worried. I did all the diving I think I ever want to do in college swim class.

K7JPD is creeping back toward the air so slowly that I’d characterize it as being under the air rather than on the air. I’m still researching compact antennas. In the meantime, I’m going to run a 60-70′ longwire to one of our tall palms, and match it with my Icom AH-3 tuner. I have two very good Icom radios: an IC-729 purchased in 1991, and an IC-736, purchased in 1995. The IC-729 is an odd bird: It was designed to be a mobile HF rig, and it runs off 12VDC. Alas, although smaller than your typical HF rig, I couldn’t conveniently fit it into our minivan, so I built a 30 amp 12V supply and used it on my bench until I bought the 736. Since the 736 arrived, the 729 came out of the box only once a year, for Field Day. I assume it still works, and I’ll find out soon, if not as soon as I had hoped.

The AH-3 is a great tuner. I used it at our North Scottsdale location in the 90s, feeding a 180′ longwire out to the corner of our 2.5 acres. I had a crappy ground there and so the longwire didn’t do as well as other, shorter longwires I’ve had in the past. I really hope the AH-3 still works, because if it doesn’t, there’s a problem: The 729 and the 736 can’t connect to Icom’s newer autotuners. I have a solid manual tuner, but the way the AH3 sits there and clunks around for a few seconds assembling a match when you push the Tune button is borderline uncanny. I suppose I could get a newer radio, but newer radios are basically computers. I stare at computer screens all day. When I operate a radio, I want to handle actual dials, switches and knobs.

Switches, yes. There’s a parallel project to getting my radios back on the air here. I’m building a 12VDC system to power the IC-729, 12VDC LED light strips in the shack, and a few other things that work on 12V. The ultimate goal is to have something like a Goal Zero Yeti backup power unit, on trickle charge from the wall until I can put it on trickle charge from a couple of solar panels. In the meantime, the system will be powered by the 30 amp supply I built for the IC-729 in 1991.

The project involves a DC power control and distribution panel. I’m using PowerWerx fittings and Anderson Powerpole connectors. I’ve never used Powerpoles before. Nothing difficult about them, but it’s a new skill.

And then there’s the AH-3 tuner control cable problem. The tuner came with 16′ 4″ of control cable, and that’s not quite enough to get down off the roof of the shack and into the building far enough to reach the radios. So I have to work up an extension cable in Molex connectors and 4-conductor thermostat wire. I did a little bit of Molex work way back when I was a Xerox tech rep, but that was 40-odd years ago and I’m rusty. So I bought 15′ of 4-conductor thermostat wire at Ace, and ordered something I didn’t think was a thing: a kit of three pairs 4-pin Molex blocks and enough pins/sockets to fill them. I have a crimper, and when I get this posted I’m going out to the garage to make a 15′ extension cable.

A set of four glass dogbone insulators arrived a few days ago, and I have plenty of #18 copper wire. Nothing gets strung, however, until I see what sort of heavy equipment will be hacking up the backyard tomorrow and days following. There’s still plenty of room for things to go wrong, but with a little luck I should have the station back on the air by next weekend.

I get asked “How’s QBit doing?” a lot, and the answer is simply this: miraculously well. He was supposed to be dead five months ago, and yesterday he was still galloping around the backyard with the rest of the Pack while we played dog soccer. Carol has been keeping an eye on his lymph nodes, which seem to be back to their normal size. His appetite is certainly good, and while deaf, he’s otherwise in pretty decent shape for a dog who will be 14 this coming Friday. We don’t know how he beat cancer, if indeed he did beat it. We have our suspicions: Carol custom-makes dog food for all four of them out of ground beef or ground turkey, and vegetables. QBit likes it so much that I think he just told himself, “Like hell I’m going to die, if she’ll give me another bowl of this tomorrow morning!”

He’s just stubborn that way. Wonder who he learned that from.

Pivoting to the Gumball Machine

Well, it’s the end of the month again, and I’m out of free articles from all the major newspapers. This happens toward the end of just about every month: I see an article in one of the papers linked by an aggregator, I go there through the link, and am told that I have used all my free articles and can now either subscribe to the paper or go away. I go away. This does not bode well for the newspaper in question, nor for newspapers generally.

The problem is dirt-simple: I do not want the whole damned Washington Post.

I might want five or six articles per month. I do not want the comics, the ads, the local news and gossip (unless something really important is going on there locally) nor the constant obsessive eyes-rolled-back-in-the-head drumbeating against Trump. I hate politics. I want ideas and analysis of interesting things, people, and phenomena, from a neutral point of view. And I am willing to pay for them.

Individually.

People who have been following me for a long time may remember an idea piece I did in this space way back in 2005, with a followup in 2014. I called it a “digital content gumball machine” because that’s what it was: A storefront with an easy payment system that downloads a digital file to your hard drive. In 2005, these really hadn’t been perfected, but Amazon came along and did it, followed by other firms like Audible. As with my 1994 prediction of Wikipedia, the details turned out a little different, but for music and ebooks, my vision was fulfilled. When I hear a piece of music I like, I go to Amazon, search for it, click a couple of things, and clunk-clatter! An MP3 appears in my Downloads folder. Ditto for ebooks. Yes, discovery is still a challenge, but it’s a separate challenge that I’ll take up another time.

Having pivoted to video without success, Big Media seems on track pivoting to dust, as Robby Soave said on Twitter and Megan McArdle quoted in a WaPo article I can’t even link to now that January’s freebies are gone. (If you subscribe or have freebies left, read it.)

One of the reasons that the print news media giants (as well as print magazines like The Atlantic) are pivoting to dust is that unlike music, ebooks, and audiobooks, they don’t have gumball machines. You can’t buy a gumball. You need to buy the entire jar. So my suggestion to them is the following: Create a consortium to finance the construction of a periodical media gumball machine.

It would work someting like this: The gumball machine is a payment processor back end to which publishers can connect under contract. Publishers add small scripts to each one of their articles, which display the title and first 500 characters of the article in a window with a message like “Continue reading this article for 50c.” Another button might offer a downloadable copy for $1. When the consumer clicks a button, he or she is charged the appropriate amount and the window poofs, revealing the full article or download link.

Consumers would create an account not with any individual publication but with the gumball machine itself, providing a charge card or coin wallet or some other means of payment. Readers could then seamlessly flit from The Washington Post to The Chicago Tribune to The Atlantic, picking up an article gumball here and an editorial gumball there. The back end would keep the the accounting straight, and would wire money to all publishers using the system on a weekly or monthly basis, keeping some pre-agreed margin for its own expenses. Publishers would leave some freebies on their sites to keep people from forgetting about them, or perhaps have articles age-out to free status after some set period of time.

Publishers would have razor-sharp data on what writers and what topics are their biggest draws. They could adjust prices to find price points that maximize their income. They wouldn’t have to abandon ads altogether, but would no longer be at the mercy of advertisers. They could stop pivoting from one damfool technofad to another, and just do what readers expect them to do: provide interesting reading at competitive prices…and do it by the piece.

After all, get enough people to pay you fifty cents for an article, and sooner or later you’re talking real money.

That’s the whole gumball machine concept for periodical publications. I know enough of the required tech to be quite sure it’s doable. In truth, it’s not even rocket science. So would it work?

Alas, no. There’s way too much ego on the table. Consider the pompous-ass motto WaPo puts on its masthead: “Democracy dies in darkness.” Uhhh, no. Democracy dies in tribalism…with you idiots leading the charge off that particular cliff. Newspapers have talked themselves into believing that they are the sole protectors of our freedom, and that we all gaze upon them with sighs of thankful reverence. They may have fulfilled that role to some extent decades ago, when investigative reporting was actually done, and done to standards held by all genuine journalists. Now, the big papers have abandoned careful investigative reporting for clickbait and partisan advocacy, which in fact is the opposite of journalism.

Anyway. I’ve thrown the idea out there and would be curious to get your reactions. As always, no partisan arguing in the comments. That’s what Twitter is for, heh.

Taming Twitter

I knew Twitter was mostly useless before I ever got an account there. I got the account because the service seemed insanely popular, which I simply could not understand. My account is now four years old, and having mostly lurked in that time I think I finally understand what Twitter is for, and why it’s a problem.

This past week saw another instance of what many call a Twitter lynch mob: Hordes of tribalists, intoxicated with their own outrage, descended upon a group of Catholic high school boys who were waiting for a bus in DC when various kinds of hell broke loose around them. I won’t go over the details here; you can google as much as you like. The incident itself isn’t my point, and I will delete any arguments in the comments over whether they “deserved” the ill-treatment they got. (They did not. If you disagree, disagree in your own space, not mine.)

The point I’m actually making here is that this incident (and countless others like it) would not have happened without Twitter. I’ve been on LiveJournal since 2005, and on Facebook since 2009. I’ve never seen an online lynch mob on either service. I’ve seen plenty of arguments, some of them quite heated, a few of them absolutely insane. None of them “went viral” the way that Twitter lynch mobs go viral.

Part of the underlying problem is a lack of discipline among many journalists. Most of the money has gone out of mainstream news journalism over the past twenty years, and with it went the sort of disciplined, methodical reporting I took for granted before 2005 or so. When you have to get clicks to keep your job and pay your bills, “methodical reporting” means all the other starving journalists will get those clicks before you do.

But bad journalism is mostly an enabling factor. The real mechanism is Twitter’s ability to act as an amplifier of emotion. Until very recently, tweets were limited to 140 characters. That’s room enough to post a link to an Odd Lot (which is most of what I do) and not much else beyond quips, brief questions, quotations, short descriptions of photos and videos, and so on. This means that rational discussion doesn’t take place very often on Twitter. There just isn’t room. Sure, some people make their case using a number of independently posted tweets intended to be read in sequence. Megan McArdle of the Washington Post is very good at this. Alas, the process of creating such a thread sounds mighty tedious to me.

What’s left? Emotion. And what’s the emotion of the day, year, and decade hereabouts? Outrage. And while Twitter can amplify things like humor, cuteness, and gratitude (and occasionally real beauty) what it does best is outrage.

From a height, Twitter is an outrage amplifier. It starts with somebody posting something calculated to outrage a certain demographic. (Innocent posts sometimes trigger Twitter mobs, but they are uncommon.) Then begins a sort of emotional feedback loop: The outraged immediately retweet the reactions they’ve seen, so that their followers (who would not otherwise have seen the outrage tweet) get to see it. They retweet it to their followers, and so on, until millions of gasping outrage addicts are piling on without knowing anything at all about the original issue that caused the outrage.

The word “amplifier” may not be quite the right metaphor here. Most of us in the nerdiverse have seen videos of a common science demo consisting of a room full of set mousetraps, each with two ping-pong balls carefully placed on the bar. Toss a single ping-pong ball into the room, and it sets off whatever mousetrap it lands on. That moustrap launches two more balls, which set off two more mousetraps, and a few seconds later there is this chaotic cloud of ping-pong balls flying around the room, until the last mousetrap has been spring. This metaphor is a nuclear fission chain reaction, and I think it describes a Twitter mob very well.

So what do we do about Twitter mobs? We could encourage the victims to lawyer up and start suing the news organizations that tossed the original ping-pong ball, and perhaps Twitter itself. That process is evidently underway with the Covington Kids. But preventing Twitter mobs is simple, if difficult: All it would require is a single change to the Twitter software:

Eliminate retweets.

That’s all it would take. Really. The retweet function is like a neutron emitted by an unstable nucleus. (There are a lot of unstable nuclei in the Twitter system.) Chain reactions are easy to kick off, and difficult to suppress. But without the ability to instantly retweet some expression of outrage, the issue never goes critical. Sure, you can manually copy and paste somebody else’s tweet and tweet it to your own followers. But the sort of people who participate in Twitter mobs are impatient, and lazy. If copy/paste/tweet is work, well, their ADHD sends them on to something else.

Basically, eliminating retweets would turn Twitter from U-235 to U-238. U-238 is non-fissionable. Without retweets, Twitter would be non-fissionable too. Problem solved.

Of course, Twitter won’t voluntarily disable retweets. Without retweets, Twitter becomes just another microblogging social network. People would abandon it in droves. However, if a class action against Twitter mounted by victims of Twitter mobs ever got any traction, part of the settlement might include requiring Twitter to disable retweets. If I were the victim of a Twitter mob, that’s what I’d demand. Money wouldn’t hurt. But to fix the problem, retweets would have to go. If that in fact became the end of Twitter, I for one wouldn’t cry too hard.

Twitter is not a common carrier. It attempts to police its own content, though that policing is sparse and rather selectively applied. If it isn’t a common carrier, it can be held responsible for the actions of its members. If its members set out to deliberately destroy private citizens by retweeting slander and doxxing, Twitter should face the consequences. If it were forced to confront the possible consequences, who knows? Twitter might eliminate the Retweet button all by themselves.

Don’t wait up for it. But don’t count it out, either.

Public Domain Day 2019

January 1 is Public Domain Day in the US. By that I mean, according to current US copyright law, old material will begin entering the public domain again yearly. On the first day of 2019, all works published in 1923 will enter the public domain. This quirk in the law is due to provisions in the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998 and unless Congress starts screwing with copyright terms again (and they probably will) works produced in 1924 will enter the public domain in 2020, those produced in 1925 in 2021, and so on. You can read lots more about it here, though in truth I’ve known about it since 1998. Funny how fast twenty years go when you’re having fun!

Now, I’ve just finished a recent original ebook called Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves by Fenton Wood. It’s the first of a series of YA boys’ books taking place in the Yankee Republic, which is a sort of alternate history America where boys are still taught traditional values and aren’t kept prisoners in their homes until they’re fifteen or sixteen. In Wood’s book, a group of young teen boys (12-14ish) built a pirate radio station to serve their little town in the mountains. There’s some truth here: Turn young teen boys loose, and they can do amazing things. I’ve been building radio transmitters since I was 12. I built a junkbox telescope at 14 that helped win Carol’s heart three years later when I showed her Saturn’s rings in her driveway. Several of my friends were doing a lot of the same. Today, you get in trouble for letting your kids walk to school or to the park, or (in some places) ordering chemical glassware for chemistry experiments.

But I digress. The point I’m making is that “boys’ books” were very popular in the 1920s. A lot of them (along with an enormous amount of other material) will now be going into the public domain yearly, unless the law changes. When I read Pirates of the Electromagnetic Spectrum, the first thing that came to mind was a book on my shelves called Boy Scout Electricians or The Hidden Dynamo that I got at an estate sale for 35c. It was published in 1913, and has been in the public domain for some years now. It’s a potboiler, a little breathless, and awkwardly written, like most boys’ books of that era, and in truth until the era came to an end in the 1950s. Being in the public domain means that we can do any damned thing we want with them. So…why not edit them to improve the writing and make them better books? Far too much current YA fiction cooks down to dystopian bummers. Some people enjoy those. Many don’t. I certainly wouldn’t give that stuff to my kids, if I had any.

This is not a new thought of mine, and I suspect others have thought of it too. A lot of pulp-era material fell into the public domain years ago for lack of copyright renewal. On reading some of the pulp scans I’ve downloaded (remember my series on the pulps?) I reflected that with a few days’ work I could make them much better and more readable. It would be a very interesting experiment. Note that I don’t mean merely republishing them as-is (this is done all the time) but improving the writing and possibly (where it makes sense) updating them a little.

A lot of the stories from the pulp era were written quickly, paid their authors very little, and can be painful to read. But they’re also full of action and ideas, and cardboard characters can be fleshed out with a little skill. Some that I’ve read evoke a place or a period very well. They could become engaging entertainment with a little work. I’m sniffing around Project Gutenberg’s SF bookshelves for an experimental subject, and it’ll be interesting to discover what pulp-ish fantastic fiction goes into the public domain this coming Tuesday. Suggestions welcome.

Excerpted from Old Catholics

Context: Back in 2004 I began a novel about a priest who resigns from the Roman Catholic church and falls in with a little house church in a Chicago bungalow. The very eccentric Old Catholic Parish of St. James and St. Julian of Norwich welcomes him and makes him one of their own during a cold Chicago winter. I never finished the novel and don’t quite know what to do next, but the excerpt here is the first half of St. JJ’s Christmas celebration. It captures the whimsy and gentle human comedy that I was reaching for. I posted a slightly earlier excerpt here on Christmas Eve 2013.

I’m alone this Christmas Eve, looking after poor Mr. QBit. Carol is in Chicago. I think I’m going to take another run at the story a little later today. Something made me start this, and I have 38,000 words down. It’s probably the strangest thing I’ve ever written as an adult. I don’t even know how it ends. Maybe I should finish it and find out.


Christmas Eve’s late afternoon was clear but very cold, and the sky’s rich blue was fading by the time Suzy parked the Volvo behind Schwartz’s Shoes. When they rounded the corner from the alley onto Campbell St, Rob saw Deacon Dan and PJ working on something set onto a shoveled-out circle in the middle of the snow-covered front yard. Rob had expected a crèche, but it was not a crèche. Atop a tripod was a black device that Rob slowly recognized as a small telescope, the little stubby computer-controlled type that he had seen advertised by Fry’s in every Saturday Chicago Tribune since before Thanksgiving. Over the end of the telescope someone had pulled a bright blue foam hand with the Chicago Cubs logo on it, its foam index finger pointing straight up.

Rob paused on the sidewalk, Suzy still clutching his arm and holding herself close to him against the chill. PJ waved to them, smiling. Dan nodded solemnly, with the pompom on his ratty stocking cap batting forward and back.

PJ stood to one side, tapping on a tablet computer. “Wi-Fi’s good now. Ok, here goes. I hope.” The little telescope began to pivot around, its motors whirring softly. The blue foam finger purred down from the zenith and swung toward the east. It came to rest at last, the motors falling into silence with the finger aimed at the front door of a bungalow across the street.

“That ain’t a star,” Dan said.

“That’s where Sirius would be if we could see it. It’s only just barely risen. I guess we need another star.” PJ tapped on the tablet. The telescope went into motion again. “The second-brightest star in the sky is Canopus.”

Dan made a face. “What dipshit would name a star Can o’ Pus?”

“It’s ancient Greek.” The foam finger again came to rest, now pointing down into the dirty snow beside the front walk. “Named after Menelaus’ navigator. It’s below the horizon. I don’t think we can see it from here.”

“Not if we’re lookin’ in the goddam dirt.”

PJ was pinching and spreading an area on his tablet that might have been a star map. “We need to skip the next three. I don’t see how to skip stars in this app.”

“I coulda gotcha an iPad for ten cents on the dollar, but no…”

PJ’s voice was resolute. “It’s Android or nothing. I only use closed systems when somebody’s paying me.”

Sensing that an argument was being held back while they watched, Rob nodded to both men and headed for the little house-church’s front steps as quickly as Suzy’s spike heels could manage. The front door was ajar. Taped to the wood below the leaded glass lights and the Robert Lenz icons was a hand-lettered sign reading:

“Come in! There is always room at Christ’s table!”

There was muted clatter and muffled conversation from the little kitchen at the back of the house, and the smells Rob would expect at one of Chicago’s famous North Side ethnic restaurants: sauerkraut, onions, orange zest, melted butter, baking bread, cinnamon, fried fish, mushroom soup. Rob hung Suzy’s coat on the peg behind the door and shook off his own, thinking that he also smelled pickled herring and the sharp tang of horseradish.

Between the last pew and the bungalow-church’s front windows was a long folding table close-set for eight. The chairs were simple folding chairs with much of their pale green paint worn away, and the tablecloth was rough white linen with tattered edges. The tablecloth seemed lumpy somehow. Rob leaned down and saw yellow-green straw peeking through small holes in the cloth. The plates were simple white china, and although the utensils were silver, they were not all the same pattern.

Mother Sherry blundered down the hall from the kitchen, edging past TV trays bearing crock pots and electric skillets. She held a cardboard box of plastic wine glasses.

“Hiyee! We’re so glad you could make it! Merry Christmas!”

From down the hall, Mrs. Przybysz’s voice was crystal clear: “It’s not Christmas yet!”

Mother Sherry leaned forward and lowered her voice. “It’s Mrs. Przybysz’s night, really. I’m still trying to figure out what all the, uh, traditions are about.” She cocked her head toward the front door, and (presumably) Deacon Dan and PJ searching for the first star of evening. “Dan found fresh hay somewhere for under the tablecloth. Mrs. Przybysz said it all had to be green, and he spent this morning picking the dead stalks out of it one by one. Those catfish fillets you’re smelling were swimming around in our bathtub until Dan cleaned them after lunch. You should see our kitchen. Boy.”

She launched off around the corner and began placing plastic wine glasses beside each plate. Rob and Suzy threaded their way up the hall, Rob resisting the temptation to lift each lid along the way to catch a little more of the delicious smells that hung above them. Suzy was an excellent cook, and he was hardly a stranger at good restaurants. Still, the fare of his daily bachelor life ran heavily toward peanut butter and microwaved bratwurst. To be invited to this sort of home-cooked feast was not an everyday thing.

As they approached the kitchen, they got the impression that Mrs. Przybysz was having telephone conversations with three or four people at the same time. Once they rounded the old wooden door, they realized that she was quite alone.

“Mona, look, I told you last year, cinnamon ain’t what it used to be. The crap I get at Jewel you have to throw in with a shovel.” The old woman held no phone. She was turning sizzling fish filets on a large pan on the stove. Her apron was pulled tight, and her hair was up under a lace cap. When she spoke, she was looking at the counter to one side of the stove. “Vietnam? Like hell I’ll use spices from Vietnam. My nephew died there. Look him up. You’ll get an earful.”

Abruptly, Mrs. Przybysz spun to one side and lifted the heavy glass lid from a stock pot. “Thanks, Virginia. You’re better than a timer.” She peered into the pot. “This still looks thin to me. Whatcha think?” For a second or two there was silence. Rob blinked. It almost looked as though a smiling woman’s face had appeared for a moment in the roiling steam rising from the pot. “I know, I know. Lowfat sour cream just doesn’t do the job. It was on sale. My mistake.” Mrs. Przybysz set the lid aside and tapped some flour into the pot from a measuring cup. She plunged a long-handled wooden spoon into the pot and stirred. She glanced briefly out at the deepening darkness outside the kitchen window. “We don’t have half an hour. The boys will spot the gwiazdka any minute now and everything had better be done.” The wooden spoon paused. “Unsweetened yogurt? I think we have some here. Will that work? Hmmph. Ok.” The old woman crossed to the careworn refrigerator and began rummaging around on its shelves.

Mother Sherry trudged up the basement stairs into the kitchen, a bottle of wine in each hand and a third tucked under her arm. She edged around Mrs. Przybysz and handed one bottle to Rob. “I keep praying for a miracle: another hundred square feet in this place. God created the whole universe from nothing. How hard could it be to give us a little more nothing?”

Mrs. Przybysz pushed past Mother Sherry while tearing the foil seal from a yogurt cup. The wooden spoon was soon at work again in the steaming pot. “God’s working on it. I told you that last year. Give Him some time.”

Rob heard the front door open and close, and feet shaking off snow. “We got it! Scapular! Right over the light pole!” Deacon Dan stomped his way up the hall, triumph on his battered face.

PJ shook his head. “No. Not ‘scapular.’ Capella. Alpha Aurigae.” The young man waved the tablet in the air as he pressed into the kitchen. “Right ascension five hours sixteen minutes. Declination forty-six degrees. Approximately. But close.”

Mrs. Przybysz laid the wooden spoon down. “Gwiazdka. The first star of evening. Good work, boys. Now go wash your hands and help me carry food.”

Bishop Hughes stepped into the kitchen from the sacristy, in a black cassock with a purple stole. “My friends! Welcome again! Veni Emmanuel! As the prophet Nehemiah told the Hebrews: ‘Eat fat, drink sweet wine, and send portions to those who have nothing, for this day is holy to our Lord!'”

There was a half-empty can of lard on the piled-high kitchen table. Rob looked down at the bottle Mother Sherry had handed him. Mogen David Concord Grape. Yup. Nehemiah could relax: St. JJ’s had it covered. Wigilia supper could now begin-if the community could somehow squirm their way out of the tiny kitchen.

Lazy LED Bulbs

Some months after moving into this house at the end of 2015, we went on a sweep and replaced nearly all of the incandescent bulbs with 2700K LED units. The drop in power usage was obvious from our monthly bills. However, I’ve had a whole lot of bulb failures within those three years. Some bulbs, in fact, didn’t even last out their first year. So much for 25,000 hours of service.

I’ve done teardowns on four or five dead bulbs, and found both dead power supplies and dead LED wafers. One of the power supplies was intermittent: Tap on it with the plastic handle of a screwdriver, and it will suddenly light its wafer again. Tap on it some more, and eventually the light will go out. The solder joints looked fine under my digital microscope. I even reflowed a few of them, but the unit’s behavior did not change.

However, the oddest failure mode we’ve experienced is this: bulbs that take longer and longer to illuminate after you flip the switch.

We have four ceiling can fixtures in our kitchen. During our LED sweep, we replaced the 75W incandescent floods with 75WEQ LED floods. A few months ago, I noticed that one of the bulbs took five or ten minutes to come on after flipping the wall switch. Once lit, the tardy bulb shone at identical light levels as the immediate bulbs did. Before it lit, it remained completely dark. (I.e., it spent no time at partial brightness.)

Well, as the months rolled on, the tardy bulb grew tardier and tardier. When it was up to about half an hour delay, a second bulb in the group of four started coming on late. A month or two after that, a third bulb in the group began delayed illumination. By that time, the first bulb would take almost two hours to light up. However, in every single case, all four bulbs eventually came up to full illumination from full dark.

I admit that once the second bulb started acting up, I put off replacing them to see what would happen. Yesterday I got tired of it, and replaced all four (even the one that still lit up immediately) with identical EcoSmart 75WEQ floods from Home Depot. The new floods produce five more lumens than the old ones but only draw 11.5 watts. (The originals drew 15 watts.)

I’m trying to figure out what sort of electrical failure would cause this. When time allows, I’m going to remove the plastic envelope from the original malefactor and take a close look. All of the bulbs I’ve cut open have used switching power supplies built into their bases. There is another kind of LED power supply: a capacitive voltage drop/rectifier system. (Wiki article here. More discussion here.) If the bulb uses a capacitive dropper, the capacitor is probably electrolytic. Electrolytics dry out over time (though it generally takes more than three years) and I’m wondering if poor-quality capacitors are at the heart of the problem. (Bad caps have caused trouble before. And again.) It’s not a time-constant thing, and in truth I don’t know what it might be, but doing a little probing will be fun.

And if any of my EE regulars know or have other (less wild-ass) guesses, I’d sure love to hear them.