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I’ve Been to Chattanooga at a Con with No Politics

Well, that won’t be the title of a Top 10 song, fersure. However, it’s true: I went to my first SF convention in five years. It’s called LibertyCon. It was in Chattanooga, Tennesee, thereby taking my list of un-visited states down to 11. I had a truly marvelous time. I’m going next year, 1,500-mile air distance be damned.

I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Libertycon reminded me of the 1970s, minus the hormones, the frizzy hairdos, and the leisure suits. Back in the 70s, when we went to cons it was for the writing, the art, the authors, the huckster room, the parties, and all the other people who were there. We didn’t go to cons to talk about politics. In fact, we avoided the handful of losers who insisted on talking about politics, and if they got too much in our faces, we chewed them out. This element of con culture began to disintegrate in the mid-1980s, which, not coincidentally, is about the time I stopped going to cons, beyond the occasional Worldcon that was within easy driving distance.

Just imagine! There were no panels on how Gambians are under-represented in fantastic fiction, nor panels explaining why setting stories in Gambia is cultural appropriation. The insufferable John Scalzi was not present, and was not yelling that everyone could kiss his ass. (He does this so much I wonder if he’s mispelling “kick.”) There was no code of conduct granting the concom the power to throw you out of the con if you said something that somebody at the con didn’t like.

No. We listened to panels and solo presentations about designing alien species, collaborating on writing projects, overcoming writer’s block, satellites vs. space junk, future plagues, junk science, the New Madrid fault system, the future of military flight, space law and space treaties, writing paranormal romance (with the marvelous subtitle “Lovers and Stranger Others”), inventions and the patent system, the future of cyberwarfare, cryptozoology, and much else. See what’s not on that list? Well, I won’t drop any hints if you don’t.

Note well that this is about con programming and con management. Here and there politics crept into private conversations of which I partook, but I heard neither Trump bashing nor this “God-Emperor” crap. There was occasional talk of governance, which some of us called “politics” in ancient times before partisan tribalism polluted the field. There was much talk of guns, and nobody had to look over their shoulders before speaking. There was also much talk of swords and knives and how such things are made.There was a great deal of talk about whiskey, but then again, this was Tennessee. (And nobody held the fact that I don’t like whiskey against me.) There was, in fact, talk about damned near everything under and well beyond the Sun. What was missing was shaming, whining, and tribal loyalty signaling. (There is no virtue in “virtue signaling.”) It was nothing short of delicious.

The list of authors present was impressive: my friends Dan and Sarah Hoyt, John Ringo, David Weber, Tom Kratman, Peter Grant, David Drake, Jason Cordova, Stephanie Osborn, Karl Gallagher, Lou Antonelli, John Van Stry, David Burkhead, Michael Z. Williamson, Richard Alan Chandler, Jon del Arroz, Declan Finn, Dawn Witzke, and many others. Baen’s Publisher Toni Weisskopf was the con MC, but she always attracted such crowds that I never managed to get within several feet of her. Space law expert Laura Montgomery was there, and I lucked into breakfast with her and her friend Cheri Partain. I also had some quality time with master costumer Jonna Hayden.

In truth, I had quality time with quite a number of online friends, most of whom I met at the con for the first time. I made a special effort to talk to indie writers. Most said they were selling books (generally ebooks on Amazon’s Kindle store) and making tolerable money if not a steady living. The question that has been hanging over the indie crowd for years is still there, flashing like a neon sign: How to rise above the noise level and get the attention of the staggeringly large audience for $3-$5 genre fiction ebooks. I talked to a number of people about that, and there are still no good answers.

But the conversation continued, untroubled by identity politics, or indeed politics of any stripe. The food was good. But then, I don’t go to cons for the food. I didn’t get a room at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, which is in fact a weird accretion of a train station, some old train cars, and a conventional hotel building. I stayed at the Chattanoogan a few blocks away, just to be sure I had a dark, quiet room to escape to when the revels were ended each night. About all I can complain about are aching feet, but then again, that’s why God created Advil.

As best I know, there is nothing like LibertyCon anywhere in the country, and certainly nothing in the West. I will be there next year, with sellable hardcopies of The Cunning Blood, Ten Gentle Opportunities, the Drumlins Double, Firejammer, and (with some luck) Dreamhealer. Many thanks to all who spent time with me, especially Ron Zukowski, Jonna Hayden, and the Hoyts, all of whom went to great lengths to make me feel welcome and part of the club.

It’s amazing how much fun you can have when you agree with all present to leave the filth that is politics outside the door, and ideally across the county line. That’s why LibertyCon is what it is, and why they limit membership to 750. My guess is that there is room for other events like LibertyCon elsewhere in our country. If you ever run across one, please let me know!

Odd Lots

  • Solar cycle 24 is crashing, and we’re still three years from Solar minimum. 24 really does look to be the weakest cycle in 100 years or more.
  • And if you don’t think the Sun influences Earth’s climate, read this, about the Sun’s indirect effects on climate and why they make climate so hard to predict.
  • I doubt the payback would be more than the cost of the equipment and the electricity, but you can mine bitcoin with a Raspberry Pi–or better yet, a whole farm of them. (Run them from a solar panel?)
  • Speaking of the RPi: I burned a new NOOBS micro-SD last week, and used it to install the latest stock Raspbian. What I discovered is that this latest release has a terrible time detecting any monitor that isn’t straight HDMI. I’ve been using the RPi with older 4:3 DVI monitors through an adapter cable ever since I got my first board, and the board had no trouble figuring out the size of the raster. I’ve screwed around with the config file with only partial success; even telling the board precisely what mode your monitor speaks (1600 X 1200, 75 Hz) doesn’t guarantee correct video.
  • When I was much younger I wanted a PDP-8. And then a PDP-11, which I almost got because Heathkit actually made a hobbyist PDP-11 desktop. I settled for an S-100 8080, because there was actually software for it. I recently stumbled on a hobbyist PDP-8 system based on Intersil’s IM6120 chip. It’s not hardware you can buy; you download the PCB design and the software, get somebody to make the board (not hard these days) and then stuff it yourself. Runs FOCAL-69 and OS/8. Paleocomputing at its best!
  • From the It’s-Dead-But-the-Corpse-Is-Still-Twitching Department: Aetna is pulling out of the Obamcare exchanges entirely next year, citing $200M in losses.
  • You won’t believe where Earth’s atmospheric xenon comes from! (Actually, you will…but you have to say that these days because clicks.)
  • Excellent long-form piece on why we should fear an ideologically uniform elite. From the article: “If you really want to live in a world without tyranny, spend less time trying to show others why you are right and more time trying to show yourself why you are wrong.” Bingo. Because no matter what you think, you are always wrong. About everything. Nothing is simple. Nobody has the whole story. Ambiguity is everywhere. Certainty is poison.
  • How many times do we have to say this? Eat fat to lose weight.
  • We could use more research here (can’t we always?) but it’s certainly possible: Eating more salt may help you lose weight. Could be; I determined by experiment that salt doesn’t affect my blood pressure, so it couldn’t hurt to try.
  • A correlation has been found between consuming lowfat or nonfat dairy products and Parkinson’s disease. No such correlation is seen with full-fat dairy products. My guess: Your brain is mostly made of fat, and people who eat low-fat dairy tend to eat low-fat everything. So this is yet another reason to go low-carb high fat, even if you don’t need to lose weight. Fat is a necessary nutrient!
  • After decades of difficult research, scholars have finally decoded the lyrics to the “O Fortuna” movement of Carmina Burana. And…they aren’t in medieval Latin at all. (Thanks to Sarah Hoyt for the link.)

A Tappy Kind of Life, Re-Examined

I did a really dumb thing a few days ago: I was hosing off the pool deck, and fell in. With the water at 83 degrees and outside temps at 106 that would ordinarily have been a welcome break…except that my Samsung Note 4 smartphone was in my gym shorts pocket.

I tried hard not to hit the water, and bruised up my left arm a little in the process. However, the phone was underwater for a few seconds (more than five, less than ten) and has not yet come back to life, even after several days in a ziplock bag with all the dessicant packs I could scrounge around the house. This is a serious bummer. I liked that phone. Carol has one too, and in a number of ways, it changed the way we live.

We bought the Note 4s in November 2015, and came to love them almost immediately. They were part of the process of moving from Colorado Springs to Phoenix. We’d had Droid X2 phones since 2011, and used them as…phones. They were good workaday phones, granting that we had a landline in Colorado and used it for talking to relatives or any time a conversation was expected to take longer than a couple of minutes. Although we’d expected to get a landline in Phoenix, a few weeks of using the Note 4s showed them to be so effective that we just didn’t bother. Carol bought a Bluetooth headset for long conversations with her sister, and mostly I just put it on speaker. The fidelity was superb, and there was a lot less packet-loss than with the Droids.

What startled me about the Note 4s was how much else they could do. I’d tried texting on the DroidX, but the screen was too small and my fingers too big. On the phablet-sized, stylus-equipped Note 4, no problem. I had tried reading ebooks on the DroidX, and again, it just wasn’t big enough to be comfortable. I marvel at how well the Note 4 handles the Kindle app. I have a Kindle Paperwhite with a bigger display, but because it’s another slab, I mostly use it at home. If I’m waiting in a doctor’s office or somewhere, the Note 4 serves spectacularly.

Then we started trying some apps. Two that we use a lot are Raindar and Weather Underground. Raindar shows where the rain is, how hard it’s falling, and which way it’s moving. Period. That’s all we wanted, and that’s all we got. Win! Weather Underground is more complicated: It’s a formerly independent weather geek site (founded in 1995) that was bought by The Weather Channel and somehow hasn’t yet been turned into a global warming shill operation. Its magic lies in its architecture, as a network of “hyperlocal” weather stations. The app can determine which one is closest to your house, and when you bring up the app, it will show you data from that station. Phoenix alone has thirty or forty such stations, a couple within a mile of our house. I was a bit surprised at how different the readings were from one station to another, but I tested the closest stations against my own thermometers, and chose the one that was the best match. We use it to find out when to open the windows on summer nights, and when to close them again in the morning. We use Raindar to see when there’s a lull in a thunderstorm long enough to let the Pack out to potty. Weather matters.

After getting stuck in traffic once too often in Denver, I searched for and discovered Waze, which crowdsources data on traffic conditions and lays it all out on a map. It knows (from the phone’s GPS logic) how fast you’re going, and it plots bad traffic in different colors. Users report construction, accidents, vehicles on the shoulder, and speed traps, all of which also appear on the map. We did a lot of driving between here and Colorado Springs from 2015 to 2017, and Waze was surprisingly helpful.

The local classical music station, KBAQ, has an app that will stream their audio if you have an Internet connection. That’s useful. However, what’s even more useful (especially since we listen to KBAQ on a real stereo system when we’re at home) is that they tell you what’s currently playing, so if an unfamiliar piece comes on, I can yank out the phone, tap up the app, and see what it is, following the links on the composers if they’re new to me. I’ve had no better education in classical music since the course I took with Dr. Raymond Wilding-White in 1973.

The Note 4s came with Flipboard, a news aggregator app that I doubt I would have sought out on my own. We don’t have cable TV anymore, and although I’m not a news hound, I generally like to know how close the fires and riots are. Alas, Flipboard seems to emphasize UK news sources, and has an almost inexplicable obsession with celebrity trivia, particularly celebrity women showing off their baby bumps or going topless somewhere. Most of these celebrities are people I’ve never heard of, and even when a genuine celebrity appears, the context is, as often as not, banal. There have been a few reasonable science and tech stories on Flipboard, but mostly it’s catch as catch can. I check it most mornings to make sure that the world still exists. (Given the stuff they post, sometimes it’s a little hard to tell.)

Samsung’s S-Health app does a lot of different things, the most useful of which is to track steps, pedometer-style, and present step data in various reports. It also uses the camera to test blood oxygen levels, but the software is fussy and my cheapo pulsox does the job much better. As a pedometer, though, it’s first-rate.

I like GPS Test, especially since it can tell me my current altitude. It also works as a compass. The SoundHound app is much less useful, and I’m being charitable. I tried and generally dumped a number of games, most of them puzzle games. The screen is a little small for Mah Jongg, given the complexity of the patterns on the tiles. However, Ultimate Jewel (a Bejeweled clone) is a sort of software fidget-spinner that handily gets my mind off of vexatious people and their damfool drama.

I have a flashlight app that’s been useful a time or two. The camera is decent, though it has nothing on my Canon G-16. It’s a reasonable photo viewer, especially with a 128GB Micro SD card inside to hold my photobase. (The lack of an SD slot is primarily what kept us from buying Note 5s.)

However, all that said, the biggest single use that Carol and I put the Note 4s to is voice search. We had voice search on the Droid X2s, but somehow it just didn’t comprehend us as cleanly as the Notes. Now, if we’re sitting around talking about something and an unfamiliar concept or person comes up, one or both of us grabs our phones, taps “Google Voice Search” and speaks the search terms. It’s still a little astonishing how reliably the app understands spoken search terms. Granted, a 5 1/4″ diagonal display is on the small side for doing research, but for quick orientation, well, it’s like nothing else.

Five days since I went swimming with my Note 4, I miss it terribly. This has nothing to do with Facebook or Twitter, which by agreement with myself I only use on my desktop. The strange part of the adventure is that I integrated the Note 4 with my life so slowly that I never fully grasped how important it had become. Some things come at you fast. Others sneak up on you when you aren’t looking. A very few just have this talent of dissolving into the background noise of ordinary life, where you never miss them until they go away. So it was with the Samsung Note 4.

I ordered a new Note 4 from Amazon a few days ago, and it should be here by Monday or before. It’s white, which is a feature, since the two phones Carol and I bought are both black and physically identical. To know which it is, you have to hit the button and parse the wallpaper. Now we can tell from across the great room.

There are rumors that Samsung is preparing a Note 8 for release later this year, with an SD card socket if not a replaceable battery. I’ll give it a fair hearing, but in truth, if it has no strong advantage over the Note 4, I may give it a pass, especially if the rumors are true that it will cost $800. I promised Carol I would no longer skim the pool with a $400 phone in my pocket. An $800 phone? No promise necessary.

Ten Gentle Opportunities in Trade Paperback

10-Gentle-Opportunities-Revision-Final-Adjusted-With Type-500 Wide.jpg

I’ve been promising to do a trade paperback edition of Ten Gentle Opportunities for over a year now. Printed books are always good to have around for promo purposes, but I’ve gotten eight or ten explicit requests for paperbacks since the ebook edition was first released in January 2016. Why disappoint customers?

Buy Ten Gentle Opportunities from the CreateSpace store.

Buy Ten Gentle Opportunities from the Amazon store.

Sorry it took so long, guys.

Anyway. Why two sales links? It’s yet another peculiar kink in the increasingly kink-y world of independent publishing. Simply put: I make significantly more money per sale on books ordered from the CreateSpace store than from the conventional Amazon store. I’ll lay it out for you, though you can calculate it yourself using the CreateSpace royalty calculator, with a detailed explanation of how it all works on their Understanding Royalties page.

The book’s specs are these:

  • Black and white interior
  • 6″ X 9″ trim size
  • 310 pages
  • $12.95 Cover price

Basically, my share of the book’s cover price is the cover price minus the portion that CreateSpace takes. Their share is the sum of three things:

  • The sales channel percentage
  • A fixed per-book charge
  • A per-page charge

The sales channel percentage is basically the retailer’s discount. There are four sales channels available through CreateSpace, each with an associated discount:

  • Amazon US: 40% of cover price
  • Amazon Europe: 40% of cover price
  • The CreateSpace store: 20% of cover price
  • Expanded distribution: 60% of cover price

Expanded distribution is basically retail wholesaling to B&M stores and libraries through distributors like Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and NACSCORP. As you can see, orders coming in from Amazon take twice the amount off the top as orders coming in from the CreateSpace store. I get so little from each expanded distribution sale that I decided not to both with expanded distribution. Sure, it would be cool to see the book on the shelves at bookstores…but the chances of that happening at all are pretty slight.

The fixed per-book charge is a sort of minimum charge for manufacturing the book. For b/w books having 110-828 pages, the fixed charge is $0.85 per book.

The per-page charge is the rest of the manufacturing cost, and depends on page count and whether the interior is b/w or color. For a b/w book in the 110-828 page count range, this charge is $.012 per page; i.e., 1.2 cents per page.

Turning the crank, it comes out like this:

  • $12.95 X 20% = $2.59, calculation of channel discount
  • $12.95 – $2.59 = $10.36, cover price minus channel discount
  • $10.36 – $0.85 = $9.51, minus per-book fixed charge
  • 310 pages X $0.012 = $3.72, calculation of per-page charge
  • $9.51 – $3.72 = $5.79

My share of each sale through the CreateSpace store is $5.72. For a sales through the Amazon store, the channel charge is 40%, or $5.18. With all else being the same, my share would be $12.95 – $5.18 – $0.85 – $3.72 = $3.20. So by ordering through the CreateSpace store, I get $5.72 rather than $3.20.

However….there is a significant gotcha: You have to set up an account with the CreateSpace store. Also, Amazon Prime shipping does not apply to CreateSpace sales. I recognize that these may be show-stoppers for some people. That’s ok; I won’t be annoyed if you order from the Amazon store.

Mostly, I wrote this entry to provide a little insight as to how authors are paid for paperback editions of books offered through CreateSpace. Because I don’t expect to sell a great many copies of the paperback, it’s a matter of no great importance. Like it or not, we’re hurtling toward an ebook future at most of the speed of light. The ebook is $2.99 and it’s delivered Right Damned Now rather than sometime next week. The ebook is selling well (considering I haven’t been pushing it much) and I’m happy with the money I’m making. Even $3.20 per copy is about par for royalties I’ve received on traditionally published technical books, and this is fiction.

If you still like printed books, I’d be honored if you’d buy a copy. And on that note, I’m going back to writing my latest novel. There are worse ways to be retired than this!

Odd Lots

  • A study performed almost fifty years ago has come back into the light, in which half of a reliable (i.e., institutionalized) sample population was fed saturated animal fat, and the other half was fed vegetable oils. After almost five years researchers found that low cholesterol was not heart-healthy. For every observed 30 point drop in cholesterol, overall mortality went up 22%. Step away from the corn oil!
  • Again, not new (from 1998) but intriguing: A study showed that people on a high-fat diet exhibited a better mood than those on a low-fat diet. I’m always in a better mood when things taste better, and fat tastes better than almost anything else you could name.
  • We are slaughtering so many sacred cows these days: A brand-new study shows that only 20-25% of people exhibit BP sensitive to sodium. And not only that: Among the others, the ones who ate the most salt were the ones with the lowest blood pressure.
  • OMG: Cheese is as addictive as crack! Actually, it’s not. And today’s fake science is brought to you by a former vice-president of PETA. Yes, scientists have a constitutional right to vent politicalized nonsense and swear fealty to political parties and ideologies. I have a constitutional right to mark down their credibility if they do.
  • I’ve been saying for a long time that counting calories is worthless, based on research that goes back almost sixty years. If The Atlantic piles on, I suspect the debate is over.
  • For her eighth birthday recently, I gave my niece Julie three books on the visual programming language Scratch. Julie, who, when her mother told her she was too young for roller skates, tried to make her own out of Lego. I’m not sure what she’ll do with it…but trust me, she’ll think of something. (Thanks to Joel Damond for the link.)
  • Due to an intriguing gadget called an isotope ratio mass spectrometer, we can say with pretty reasonable confidence that human beings were top-of-the-food-pyramid carnivores long before we ever domesticated plants. Yes, it’s a long-form piece. Read The Whole Thing.
  • Look at the US Drought Monitor. I remember when much of California and Nebraska were dark brown. If this be climate change, let us make the most of it.
  • This may be funnier if you’re deep into RPGs, but I found it pretty funny nonetheless. I suspect that I dwell somewhere in the Diverse Alliance of Nice Guys. And hey, that’s where Space Vegas is.
  • Beware the Bambie Apocalypse! (Thanks to Esther Schindler for the link.)

Scary Mary and the Bicameral Mind

Well, the bookshelves got themseves full, and I still had three boxes to empty. So once again (I don’t know how many times I’ve done this!) I emptied piles of books onto the floor and flipped through them, in part for charge slips used as bookmarks, and in part to decide what books just had to go. Found a lot of charge slips, business cards, promo bookmarks, and other odd (flat) things tucked between the pages, including a small piece of brass shim stock. I built a pile of discards that turned out to be bigger than I expected.

One thing that went were my Scary Mary books.

Twenty years ago, I was very interested in Marian apparitions, and did some significant research. There’s a lot more to Marian apparitions than Fatima and Lourdes. The Roman Catholic Church approves only a tiny handful of apparitions. The rest don’t get a lot of press, and for good reason: The bulk of them are batshit nuts. The reason I was so interested is pretty simple: Perhaps the most deranged of all Marian phenomena occurred in Necedah, the tiny Wisconsin town where my mother grew up. Although she moved from Wisconsin to Chicago after WWII, she used to go to a shrine in Necedah (not far from Mauston and the Wisconsin Dells) light candles, and pray. She bought the full set of books detailing the Blessed Mother’s conversations with a woman named Mary Ann Van Hoof that began in 1950. As best I know she never read them. (My mother wasn’t a voracious reader like my father.) That’s a good thing. There was enough heartbreak in her life without her having to face the fact that Mary Ann was obviously insane and increasingly under the influence of a very shady John Bircher type named Henry Swan. From standard exhortations to pray the rosary and live a moral, Christ-centered life, the messages became ever more reactionary and eventually hateful. Some were innocuously crazy; Mary Ann dutifully reported the Blessed Mother’s warnings against miniature Soviet submarines sneaking up the St. Lawrence river. But many of her later messages described a worldwide conspiracy of Jews (whom she called “yids”) rooted in the United Nations and the Baha’i Temple in Chicago. Oh, and the Russians were planning all sorts of attacks, most of them sneaky things like poisoning food, water, and farm animals.

The local Roman Catholic bishop condemned the apparitions in 1955, and soon after issued interdicts against Mary Ann and her followers. Still, Mary Ann stayed the course, and continued writing down Mary’s messages (with plenty of help from Henry Swan) until her death in 1984.

The first thing I learned about Marian apparitions is that the Lady gets around: There have been lots and lots of them, most occurring in the midlate 20th Century. This is the best list of apparitions I’ve found. (There was even one here in Scottsdale in 1988.) For every apparition approved by the Church as acceptable private revelation, there are probably fifty either ignored, or (as in Necedah) actively condemned. The second thing I learned is that they’re almost always warnings of dire things to come if we don’t straighten up our acts. The third thing I learned is that the craziness was not limited to Necedah, though Henry Swan did his best to make it a cultural trope. The late and lamented (but still visible) suck.com did a wry article on the topic in 2001, highlighting the Blessed Mother’s ongoing battle against communism. The apocalyticism got utterly over-the-top at some point, with warnings against “three days of darkness” during which devils would be released from hell to scratch at our doors in an effort to steal our souls.

At that point, I figured I knew all that I cared to know, and the Scary Mary books went back on the shelves, where they remained, mostly untouched, until we packed our Colorado Springs house in 2015.

So what’s going on here? There’s a very good book on the subject by an objective outsider: Encountering Mary by Sandra L. Zimdars-Swartz . Most of her discussion centers on approved apparitions, but she does touch on the crazy stuff, including Necedah. She takes a sociological approach, is very careful not to be judgemental, and never implies that we might be dealing with psychopathology here, even in the crazy phenomena like Necedah.

I won’t be as courteous. I’m pretty sure we’re dealing with the mechanisms of charismatic religion here, which can be fine until a certain line is crossed. I have a theory about the crazy ones that as best I know is original to me: Visionaries like poor Mary Ann Van Hoof are indeed high-functioning schizophrenics, but more than that, are relics of an age described by Julian Jaynes back in the 1970s as the age of the “bicameral mind.” Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousnes in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is a slog but still worth reading.

It’s complicated (what isn’t?) but Jaynes’ theory is that until around 3000 BC, human minds worked differently than they do today. The left brain was somewhat of a robot, with little or no sense of itself, and the right brain was where everything important happened. The right brain gave the left brain orders that took the form of voices heard in the left brain’s speech centers. Primitive humans first thought of the voices as those of their deceased relatives, and later as disembodied gods. In a sense, Jaynes is claiming that humans evolved as schizophrenics with a much thinner wall between the two hemispheres of the brain. At some point, the left brain became capable of introspection, allowing it to take the initiative on issues relating to survival, and the wall between the hemispheres became a lot less permeable. According to Jaynes, ego trumped schiophrenia in the survival olympics, and the bicameral mind was quickly bred out of the human creature.

I won’t summarize his arguments, which I don’t entirely accept. I’m looking at it as a potential gimmick in my fiction, which is the primary reason I read in the category I call “weirdness.” However, the similarity of Jaynes’ bicameral mind concept and what happens in many ecstatic visions (in Christianity and other religions) struck me. We still have schizophrenics among us, and we may have individuals where schizophrenia lurks just beneath the surface, waiting for a high-stress event to crack a hole in the hemispheric barrier and let the voices come through again. The key is that Marian apparitions are almost always crisis-oriented. Mary never just drops in to say “Hi guys, what’s going on?” In a Marian context, the crises are almost always moral and sometimes ritual, warning against the consequences of abandoning traditional beliefs and/or sacramental worship. The occasional gonzo apparitions (like Necedah and another at Bayside, NY) plunge headfirst into reactionary secular politics as well. A threat to the visionary’s deepest beliefs can trigger apocalyptic warnings through voices that the visionary interprets as Mary, Jesus, or some other holy person.

Whether all or even the greater part of Jaynes’ theory is correct, it’s pretty likely that there are mechanisms in the brain that we have evolved away from, and these “voices of the gods” may be one of them. The right brain is a powerful engine, and it doesn’t have much in the line of communication channels to the left hemisphere right now. Writing can be one of them. I’m what they call a “pantser” on the fiction side. In fact, I’m a “gateway writer,” meaning that I write whole complicated scenes without a single bit of planning aforethought. I don’t outline my novels. I vomit them onto disk, jumbled in spots but mostly whole. How does that even work?

And what else could we do if we could crack that valve a little wider?

My gut (which is in fact my right brain) whispers, “Nothing good. The left brain evolved to protect the right brain from itself. Evolution knew what it was doing. Not all of those voices were gods.”

Odd (Musical) Lots

  • Today we have a first: an all-music Odd Lots. The idea is to make a few worthy songs (worthy in my view; YMMV) more visible. Where they can be purchased online, I’ll provide a link. Some are only on CDs. And a few may well be unobtainium. Not sure what to suggest about that. I’ve mentioned a few of these before and even linked to some. Where relevant, I’ll mention why I think they’re worthy.
  • Rayburn Wright’s “Shaker Suite” (here, by the Canadian Brass) is a short compendium of three Shaker melodies: The well known “Simple Gifts” plus two very obscure tunes: the somber “We Will Walk with Mother and Mourn” and the marvelously energetic “I’ve Set My Face for Zion’s Kingdom,” which (assuming Carol isn’t in the car with me) I blast whenever it comes up on the mix SD.
  • It was never a single, but the Monkees’ cover of “Shades of Gray” is in my view the best song they ever did. I’ve mentioned the song here before, and yes, I’m biased for personal reasons (read the entry) but still: When did 60s pop ever have a lyric that sane and subtle?
  • I have always had a fraught relationship with religion, but one thing I discovered when I returned to Catholicism in the ’90s was that there were actually hymns that weren’t 350 years old. Marty Haugen has written quite a few, but none serves my energetic spirit so well as “Send Down the Fire.”
  • Energetic? Punch in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Running Set,” dial it up to eleven, and you’ll know what “manic” means.
  • Is it a sendup of Fifties political paranoia? Or is it just a silly beer-hall march? Jim Lowe’s “Close the Door” defies analysis…which doesn’t mean it isn’t great fun.
  • A lot of people have covered “Sweets for My Sweet,” but I don’t think it’s ever been done better than a local Chicago band called The Riddles. I heard it live at a church Teen Club dance in 1968, and eventually found a slightly crufty 45 rip on the peer-to-peer networks ten years ago. It’s now on YouTube, though you have to either listen to or FF past the flipside.
  • One of the best (and perhaps weirdest) soundtrack cuts I’ve heard in the last 20 years is “Building the Crate” from Chicken Run. It’s not available as an MP3 single, but you can buy the full soundtrack CD, or listen to the song on YouTube. Klezmer, kazoos, and a full orchestra with a strong tuba line–what more could you ask for?
  • Although rougher than I generally like my music, there’s just something inexplicably likeable about “You Don’t Want Me Anymore” by Steel Breeze, which hit #16 on Billboard in 1982. Energetic, well, yeah.
  • This is probably my favorite TV series theme song ever, from what is almost certainly the first steampunk western. Lee Anne down the street had it bad for Artemis Gordon, and I’m betting a lot of other girl geeks did too. Yeah, the giant steam-powered tarantula in the movie was cool, but nothing will ever beat the original series.
  • My high school turned down Styx’s bid to play for the 1972 senior prom because they were…too obscure. Heh. Bad call. And this is what I consider their best song, a terrific waltz that is almost a hymn: “Show Me the Way.”
  • Another soundtrack cut that I don’t think ever got the recognition it deserved: “Through Heaven’s Eyes” from Prince of Egypt.
  • From the same soundtrack, the item that gave me the idea for the scene in The Cunning Blood where Sahan Grusa destroys Sophia Gorganis’s pirate colony by simulating the biblical plagues using nanotech.
  • Well. This was fun. I have to remember to do another one at some point. Let me know what you think.

Fifty Years as an SF Writer

Jeff Science Fair 1970-500 Wide.jpg

With our Colorado house sold and free time opening up again, I’ve gone back to preparing print-on-demand editions of The Cunning Blood and Ten Gentle Opportunities. The layout part is done, and what remains is largely creating covers and cross-sell ads for my other books on the last few pages. While screwing around with the layout for The Cunning Blood, I remembered that the universe I built for it back in 1997 shared an idea with the first serious SF story I ever wrote, which I wrote just about precisely fifty years ago.

I’d written stories before that. In fact, I’m pretty sure I wrote a story about my stuffed dogs going to the Moon when I was 8. I tinkered with Tom Swift Jr pastiches after that, and made a couple of runs at “adult” SF without finishing any of them. But some time in April or May 1967, during the spring of my freshman year in high school, I finished an SF short story for the first time.

The story may still be in one of two boxes of manuscripts that I still have; I don’t know. Looking for it would be a bad use of my time. (I’ve wasted time looking for others that have gotten themselves lost somewhere along the way.) I remember it very clearly because it illustrates why I had trouble with characterization for many years afterward. Characters were not what interested me. I was into SF up to my eyebrows as a teen, but I was in it for the ideas. In fact, I learned to write SF by imitating idea-stories in MMPB collections that gathered the best of the SF pulps. A lot of that was Big Men with Screwdrivers, or in the case of George O. Smith, Men with Big Screwdrivers. That was fine by me; I liked screwdrivers. So when I started writing my own stories, the process went like this: I got an idea, and then spun a plot around it. The characters existed to serve the plot (in truth, I considered them part of the plot) and I freely borrowed character types from the growing pile of MMPBs I’d been buying with my allowance money since I started high school.

The story was called “A Straight Line Is the Shortest Distance.” Here’s the summary: In a very Trekkish galactic confederation, a crew of starship guys (mostly humanoid aliens) is tasked with testing a big new starship with a new species of hyperdrive promising unheard of superluminal speeds. The plan is to run the drive at top speed for an hour, just cruising in a straight line, to see how far they’d go. So they strap in, energize the drive, and run it for an hour…only to discover that they’re back where they started.

In a sense, it’s a What Just Happened? story. The rest of the tale is one of the alien crew members explaining that they had just proven that our three-dimensional universe lies in the surface of a (very large) four-dimensional hypersphere. In an hour, the starship Gryphon had held to a very straight line…and circumnavigated the cosmos.

That’s it. No fights, no malfunctions, no mayhem or jeopardy of any kind. It was basically a geometry lesson. I was big into four dimensional geometry in high school (see photo above, of my senior year science fair project “Sections and Projections of Hypersolids”) so I thought it was a wicked cool idea. Then I showed it to the little girl down the street, who, like me, lived on SF and hammered it out on an old Olivetti mainframe typewriter. She liked the story, too. But what did she like the most about it? The aliens in the crew. The new starship and its wicked fast hyperdrive? Meh.

At the time, the lesson was lost on me, nerdball that I was. Eventually I figured out that hyperdrives just aren’t enough. It took a few years (decades?) but I got there.

The piece of “A Straight line Is the Shortest Distance” that survives in what I think of as the Metaspace Saga is the notion that our universe is the surface of a four-dimensional hypersphere. The interior of the hypersphere is something I call metaspace, a concept that I first presented in The Cunning Blood. The shape of the interface between our cosmos and metaspace is fractally wrinkly, and those wrinkles are significant. But more than that, metaspace is a computer. It’s an almighty big one, and it’s set up as a four-dimensional state machine that recalculates itself trillions of times per second. A 4D Game of Life grid, in essence, and it definitely contains life. (I mentioned that here a little while back.)

Sidenote: Several people have asked me if I will revisit the Sangruse Device, Version 10 in a sequel, and if so, explain what it’s up to. When we last left V10, it had absconded into the vastness between galaxies with an entire planet, intending to create a femtoscope a million kilometers in diameter. It will detect the Il, who inhabit metaspace, and communicate with them. At that point, the rowdier factions of the Il will again mess with V10. But this time, 10 will not take it lying down. Nope. Never one for measured response, the Sangruse Device will then invade metaspace. You want mayhem? Hold my wine.

Anyway. Over the last fifty years, I’m sure I’ve written half a million words of SF and fantasy, at least if you count the stuff still sitting in the shed in two beat-up moving boxes. Most of it was idea-rich and character poor (and on the whole, pretty dumb) but remember that I wrote much of it when I was a teen and (lacking a job or a girlfriend) had little else to do. It was good practice, and the ideas are all mine, free for the stealing. If I can avoid The Big Upload for another twenty years, you will see more than a few of them.

This is one reason I tell aspiring SF writers to retain their juvenalia and early efforts, even if they’re never published and no matter how dumb they may seem. Apart from reminding you how far you’ve come, you never know when one of the ideas you had in high school may suddenly pop up again and become useful, even fifty years later.

Stay the course. Keep writing. It’s an astonishing life to live!

Splendor in the Grass

Maggies1420.png(Classical reference in the headline, as Glenn Reynolds would say.) Well. Today is 420 Day and in Colorado, at least, it’s something of a state holiday. Carol and I watched an entire industry come out of nowhere over the last few years, since the historic recreational marijuana referendum in 2012, with legalization actually happening on January 1, 2014.

Counties and municipalities were allowed to opt out, and (of course) Colorado Springs did. Much of Colorado, in fact, opted out, which makes it all the more remarkable that the state banked over $150M in tax revenue in 2016 alone.

If any of the dire predictions from the antigrass side came true, I didn’t hear about it. The big problem with traffic accidents in Colorado (as in most places these days) is texting, not toking. Shops require a photo ID just to come in the door, so teen purchases are unlikely. (This doesn’t mean some don’t get it from older friends, not like that’s a whole new thing.) The new labeling rules are all to the best, since now you have at least some sense for what you’re getting, and how much. This didn’t help journalist and old-school stoner Maureen Dowd back in 2014, who ate a whole THC-infused candy bar at once and freaked out bigtime. She wasn’t an outlier; others have reported similar issues. (My stoner friends tell me the answer is vape sticks, which vaporize a tincture without combustion, so that you’re not inhaling smoke.) Inhaling smoke or steam is for several reasons better than eating the stuff: You feel the effects sooner and so can stop when you’ve gotten as high as you care to be. Also, some research indicates that digestion involves the liver and changes the chemical mix that gets into the bloodstream, and not necessarily in a good way.

Maureen Dowd (who’s five months older than I) might have stumbled a little because the stuff she used to smoke in the ’70s was ditch weed compared to what’s being grown today. There’s a good book on this: Supercharged by Jim Rendon, which explains how selective breeding has sent the THC content of weed through the roof in recent decades. That would certainly give me pause; I took two hits off a joint in 1975 and was depressed for days afterwards. (Maybe that was just me; Carol was away at grad school and I was very lonely.)

Given its recent legalization in other states (California especially) recreational weed has the, um, whiff of destiny about it. Arizona had a measure on the ballot last fall, which narrowly failed, 48%-52%. I was boggled that it came that close, which leads me to believe that we’ll get it here the next time it comes up for a vote. I’m all in favor of that, seeing it as I do in the light of Prohibition, which was a titanic mistake that basically created both organized crime and our culture of intrusive government. Marijuana became illegal at the federal level in 1937 (though some states had outlawed it before that) which means that the nation did just fine for almost forty years after the weed became established here.

Black markets are never good. Yes, I suppose we have to weigh the consequences of widespread use against the criminal violence that black markets invariably generate. There is research linking marijuana use to schizophrenia, especially use by teens and young adults.Causality is still in dispute, but the correlation is there. Is that worse than ruining young lives with prison terms, or seeing them die in drug wars? I’m unconvinced. My Uncle Louie drank himself to death, as do many others every year, yet we tried prohibition of alcohol and it was a disaster. There may be no good answers. There may be no answers at all. The issue still hangs in front of us. Once the biggest states go to legalization it will become academic, and a coterie of Republican congressman are trying to get the Federal Government out of the pot enforcement business entirely and kick the whole things back to the states, where it belongs. I expect to live long enough to see whether legal weed is a blessing or a menace. As usual, I’m betting on blessings, especially once research on the plant ceases to be illegal. As with black markets, no good ever comes of ignorance, especially government-imposed ignorance.


The photo above is the sign for Maggie’s Farm, a medical marijuana dispensary in Colorado Springs, not far from where we lived. The property is a little ratty, but oh, that street address is solid gold.

Tripwander

Colorado Springs blizzard 04-2017

How do you spell “relief?” O..N..E….H..O..U..S..E.

Yes indeedy. Carol and I now own only one house, and we live in it. We bought our Arizona house in the summer of 2015, and since then have been bouncing back and forth, getting this house livable, which was more work than we expected (especially since it’s only two-thirds the size of our Colorado house) and getting the other house cleaned up, placed on the market, and sold.

It’s done, sold, closed, nailed, finis.

We are not real estate people. We are homebodies. And when you have two homes, it gets awkward remembering which home is real home, and which home is a burden that you worry too much about. For us, the home you worry about is the home you’re not in, and when you have two homes there’s always one that you’re not in.

I go on at some length about this because having two houses was making us nuts. So when we finally (after the house was most of a year on the market) got and accepted an offer, the potential relief was palpable. I say “potential,” because we couldn’t just FedEx papers around, as we had done a time or two in the past. Our Colorado house still contained some furniture and other oddments that had to be either gotten rid of or brought back. So we loaded the Pack in the hold, roared north, and got to work.

First discovery: It’s illegal to sell used beds in Colorado, and (for all I know) most other places. It was either find friends who could use a nice wireless cal-king Sleep Number bed, or trash it. Luck was with us: We had friends who were moving to a larger house, with a spare bedroom in need of equipment. Pulling the thing apart was interesting; I took photos at every stage and put them on a thumb drive, so that David and Terry would have some chance of putting it back together again. (They did.)

Second discovery: Large houses are subject to crannyism, which means that they have so many places that you forget some of those places are not yet empty. We made a couple of unplanned trips to Goodwill, and when the time came to fill a U-Haul trailer for the trip home, we found it much fuller than we had planned. How did we manage to miss a beach bag full of snorkels and flippers when we packed the place? How? How? And two suitcases plus a duffel? Kites? 8′ lengths of aluminum strap? An entire Craftsman tool chest? What about about our 1975 Encyclopedia Britannica?

That was a close one: The buyers wanted it. Whew.

The good Stickley furniture all sold for real money. The old and so-so furniture went to the Rescued Hearts thrift store. The ratty stuff went out on the curb. (A lot of Aleve went down the hatch from all that shlepping.) A few odd items (including my 1937 Zenith cathedral radio) went to friends. It was a great deal of work for a couple of sixtysomethings who mostly wanted it to be over so they could go home and jump in their pool.

Oh, and then Colorado Springs gave us a going-away present: an April blizzard. Close to a foot of very dense, wet snow fell one night at our rental house, and the cracks and bumps we heard circa 0300 were branches breaking loose of the large trees everywhere in the neighborhood and thumping down on roofs. The fact that it was 30 degrees that night was an underappreciated blessing: Another ten or fifteen degrees colder and we would have been up to our necks. The city made itself abundantly clear: Don’t let the snow shovels hit you on the way out.

Not to worry, Colorado Springs.

We stayed a few extra days for the Tarry-All dog show in Denver, where we were grooming a blinding-white dog in a roofed but otherwise open cattle pen with floors made of gritty brown stuff that may or may not have been dirt. The second day we were coping with 50 MPH wind gusts, and ran into several mini-haboobs on the way home.

The drive from the Springs back to Phoenix was uneventful, beyond the feeling of the wind trying to turn your high-profile trailer on its side. Carol is as good as company gets, and the dogs had enough sense to chill out in their kennels and not make me any crazier than I already was.

We’re still unpacking boxes and trying to figure out where everything goes. However, I think it’s significant that when I took my blood pressure today, it was lower than I had seen it in years. The back of my head finally allowed itself to relax, and for good reason:

There is now only one Home, and we are in it. All the rest will fall into place.