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Remembrances of things past, in my own life and those near to me

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!

Ghosts from the Trunk: Jeff Invents Selfies in 1983

Earlier today, one of my Twitter correspondents mentioned that he much liked my conceptual descriptions of wearable computers called jiminies. I did a couple of short items in PC Techniques describing a technology I first wrote about in 1983, when I was trying to finish a novel called The Lotus Machine. I got the idea for jiminies in the late 1970s, with elements of the technology dating back to my Clarion in 1973. (I wrote a little about that back in November.) A jiminy was a computer that you pinned to your lapel, or wore as a pair of earrings, or wore in the frames of your glasses. Jiminies talked, they listened, and for the most part they understood. I remember the first time I ever saw an Amazon Echo in action. Cripes! It’s a jiminy!

1983 was pre-mobile. Jiminies communicated with one another via modulated infrared light. Since almost everybody had one, they were almost always connected to an ad-hoc jiminy network that could pass data from one to another using a technology I surmised would be like UUCP, which I had access to at Xerox starting in 1981. I never imagined that a jiminy would have its own display, because they were supposed to be small and inobtrusive. Besides, our screens were 80 X 24 text back then, and if you’d told me we’d have full color flat screens soon, I’d have thought you were crazy. So like everything else (except the big bulky Alto machine in the corner of our lab) jiminies were textual devices. It was spoken text, but still text.

I never finished The Lotus Machine. I was trying to draw a believable character in Corum Vavrik, and I just don’t think I was emotionally mature enough to put across the nuances I planned. Corum was originally a rock musician using a technology that played music directly into your brain through a headband that worked like an EEG in reverse. Then he became a ghost hacker, where “ghost” was a term for an AI running inside a jiminy. Finally he went over to the other side, and became a cybercrime investigator. Something was killing everyone he ever cared about, and as the story opens, he’s pretty sure he knows what: a rogue AI he created and called the Lotus Machine.

The story takes place in 2047, with most of the action in Chicago and southern Illinois. I realized something startling as I flipped through the old Word Perfect document files: I predicted selfies. Take a look. Yes, it’s a little dumb. I was 31, and as my mom used to say, I was young for my age. But damn, I predicted selfies. That’s gotta be worth something.

From The Lotus Machine by Jeff Duntemann (November 1983)

Against the deep Illinois night the air over the silver ellipse on the dashboard pulsed sharply once in cream-colored light and rippled to clarity. Corum’s younger face looked out from the frozen moment into the car’s interior with a disturbing manic intensity, raising a freeform gel goblet of white wine, other arm swung back, hand splayed against a wood frieze carved into Mondrianesque patterns. His crown was bare even then, but the fringe at ear level grew to shoulder length, mahogany brown, thick in cohesive waves.

“Please stop tormenting yourself,” Ragpicker said.

“Shut up. Give me a full face on each person at the table.”

“Ok.” One by one, Ragpicker displayed each person sharing the booth with Corum that night. Three faces in tolerable light; one profile badly seen in shadow. When people congregated, their jiminies cooperated to record the scenes, silently trading images through infrared eyes, helping one another obtain the best views of vain owners.

A slender man with waist-length black hair. “Dunphy. Dead ten years now.” Steel grey hair and broken nose. “Lambrakis. Dead too, was it four, five years?”


A lightly built Japanese with large, burning eyes. “Feanor. Damn! Him too.”

The profile…little to go by but thick lips and small, upturned nose. “I’m pretty sure that was Cinoq-the nose is right. How sure are we that that’s Cinoq?”

“Ninety percent. You began sleeping with him some months later. Of course, if he had had a jiminy…”

“Damned radical atavist. I often wonder how he could stand us.” The car leaned into a curve. Corum’s fingers tightened on the armrest. “He died that year. Gangfight. Who else heard us?”

“In that environment, no one. It was four A.M. and nearly empty, and the fugues were playing especially loud. At your request.”

Corum stared out at the night, watched a small cluster of houses vanish to one side, tiny lights here and there in distant windows. “An awful lot of my friends have died young. Everybody from the Gargoyle, the whole Edison Park crowd-where’s Golda now? Any evidence?”

“Not a trace. No body. Just gone.” The ghost paused, Corum knew, for effect only. It was part of Ragpicker’s conversational template. So predictably unpredictable. “She hated it all, all but the Deep Music.”

“It’s not music.” Not the way he had played it, nor Feanor, nor the talentless dabblers like Lambrakis. Golda wanted to reach into the midbrain with the quiet melodies of the New England folk instruments she made herself from bare wood. It didn’t work-couldn’t, not in a medium that spoke directly to the subconscious. Rock could be felt, but true music had to be listened to.

She loved me, Corum thought. So what did I do? Sleep with men. Sleep with teenage girls.

“She took drugs,” Ragpicker reminded. “You hated drugs.”

“Shut up. Dead, like everybody else. All but me. And why me?”

“It isn’t you!”

“It is. We’ve got to find the Lotus Machine, Rags.”


“We’re going to start looking.”



The ghost said nothing. Corum reached up to his lapel, felt the warm black coffin shape pinned there, with two faceted garnet eyes. A ghost, a hacked ghost, hacked by the best ghosthack who ever lived, hacked so that it could not assist in any search for what Corum most wished to forget.

“I hacked you a good hack, old spook. But it’s time to own up. I’ll find the Lotus Machine myself. And someday I’ll unhack you. Promise”

Anger Kills

Anger literally killed my grandfather. I mean literally literally here, not figuratively: My grandfather Harry G. Duntemann got furiously angry, and he died. This is one reason I’ve tried all my life to be good-natured and upbeat, and not let piddly shit (a wonderful term I learned from my father) get me worked up. This worked better some times than others. (Once it almost didn’t work at all. I’ll get to that.) Practice does help. However, in the wake of the election, a lot of people whose friendship I value are making themselves violently angry over something that may be unfortunate but can’t be changed. This is a bad idea. It could kill you.

Consider Harry Duntemann 1892-1956. He was a banker, fastidious and careful, with a tidy bungalow on Chicago’s North Side, a wife he loved, and two kids. One was a model child. The other was my father. Both he and his son were veterans of the World Wars, which is one reason I mention them today. My grandfather, in fact, won a medal for capturing two German soldiers in France all by himself, by faking the sounds of several men on patrol and demanding that they come out with their hands up. They did. He played them good and proper, and nobody got hurt.

He had an anger problem. Things bothered him when they didn’t go his way. Family legend (which I’ve mentioned here before) holds that my father comprised most of the things that didn’t go his way. His anger isn’t completely inexplicable. Harry worked in a bank, and was for a time the chief teller at the First National Bank of Chicago. You don’t get to do jobs like that if you’re sloppy, and if you spot errors, you track them down like rats and kill them.

Harry was the sort of man who really shouldn’t retire, but retire he did, at age 62. He bought a lot in tony Sauganash and had a fancy new house built. I honestly don’t know what he did with his time. He golfed, and taught me how to do simple things with tools when I was barely four. He worked in his garden and his vegetable patch. My guess: He was bored, and what might not have bothered him when he oversaw the teller line at Chicago’s biggest bank now preyed on his mostly idle mind.

One day in August 1956 a couple of neighborhood punks vandalized his almost-new garage, and he caugfht them in the act. He yelled at them, and they mocked him. He yelled more. They mocked more. Finally he just turned around, marched into his house, sat down in his big easy chair…

…and died.

He was healthy, a lifetime nonsmoker, trim, not diabetic, and not much of a drinker. I suspect he was more active in retirement than he had been during his working life. He had no history of heart disease. He had no history of anything. Anything, that is, but anger.

I ignited a smallish firestorm on Facebook yesterday when I exhorted people who were angry over the election to just let it go. Most of them seemed to think that “letting it go” meant “accepting it” or even condoning it. Maybe in some circles it does. I don’t know. To me it means something else entirely, something that may well have saved my life.

As my long-time readers know, I lost my publishing company in 2002. It didn’t die a natural death. I can’t tell you more than that for various reasons, but Keith and I didn’t see it coming, and it hit us hard. I put on a brave face and did my best. Once I was home all day, though, it just ate at me. I was soon unable to sleep, to the point that I was beginning to hallucinate. To say I was angry doesn’t capture it. Depression is anger turned inward, and I became depressed.

I had a lot of conversations with Bishop Elijah of the Old Catholic Church of San Francisco. He was getting worried about me, and in late 2002 he Fedexed me a little stock of consecrated oil, and told me quite sternly to anoint myself. I did. (After I did, I laughed. Would Jesus haved used FedX? Of course He would. Jesus used what He had on hand to do the job He had to do. Catholicism is sacramental, but also practical.) Elijah diagnosed me pretty accurately when he said: You’re hoping for a better yesterday. You won’t get it. Let it go.

It took awhile. It took longer, in fact, than Bishop Elijah had left on this Earth, and I struggled with it for years after he died in 2005. The company wasn’t piddly shit. It was the finest thing I had ever done. How could I let it go?

I thought of my grandfather Harry every so often. And eventually it hit me: Those little snots didn’t kill him, as I had thought all my life. They played him, and he killed himself with his own anger. “Letting it go” cooked down to protecting myself from myself. I’ll never get my company back, but I can now see it from enough of a height to keep my emotional mind from dominating the memory. I learned a lot as a publisher. I made friends, and money, and reputation. I supervised the creation of a lot of damned fine books, and won awards. Losing it was bad, but life around me was good. (Carol especially.) I could choose to obsess, and probably die before my time, or I could recognize the damage my anger could do and turn the other way. I’m not sure how better to describe it. It was a deliberate shift of emotional attention from my loss to new challenges.

This isn’t just a theory of mine. Anger kills by keeping the body awash in cortisol, which causes inflammation of the arteries. The inflammation causes loose lipids to collect in arterial plaques, which eventually block an artery and cause an infarction. Plug the wrong artery at the wrong time, and you’re over.

Anger is a swindle. It doesn’t matter if it’s “righteous anger,” whateverthehell that is. Anger promises the vindication of frustration and disappointment, and delivers misery and early death. When I’ve seen people online turning bright purple with fury the last couple of days, that’s what I see: Good people being played by the desire for a better yesterday. It won’t kill most of them. It may well kill a few. It will lose them friends. It will make other people avoid them. It may prompt them to eat and drink too much. It is basically making them miserable, to no benefit whatsoever.

When I say “let it go” these days, I mean what I said above: Protect yourself from yourself. Call a truce between the two warring hemispheres of your brain. Turn to something else, something you can change, something that may earn out the effort you put into it with knowledge, skill, and accomplishment.

Believe me on this one: There is no better yesterday. Don’t go down that road.

You may never come back.

My Spotty SF Predictions

I’ve talked before about my conviction that ideas will get you through stories with no characters better than characters will get you through stories with no ideas. I grew up on what amounted to the best of the pulps (gathered by able anthologists like Kingsley Amis and Groff Conklin) so that shouldn’t come as any surprise. Most stories in those anthologies had a central concept that triggered the action and shaped character response. Who could ever forget Clarke’s “The Wall of Darkness,” and its boggling final line? Not me. Nossir. I’ve wanted to do that since I was 11. And once I began writing, I tried my best.

In flipping through a stash of my ancient manuscripts going back as far as high school (which I found under some old magazines while emptying the basement in Colorado) I had the insight that I did ok, for a fifteen-year-old. Most of my early fiction failed, with much of it abandoned unfinished. I know enough now to recognize that it failed because I didn’t understand how people worked then and couldn’t construct characters of any depth at all.Time, maturity, and a little tutoring helped a great deal. Still, if I didn’t have a central governing idea, I didn’t bother with characters. I didn’t even start writing. For the most part, that’s been true to this day.

I’m of two minds about that old stuff, which is now very old. I spent some time with it last fall, to see if any of the ideas were worth revisiting. The characters made me groan. Some of the ideas, though, not only made sense but came very close to the gold standard of SF ideas, which are predictions that actually come true.

Let me tell you about one of them. During my stint at Clarion in 1973, I wrote a novelette called “But Will They Come When You Do Call For Them?” Look that question up if you don’t understand the reference; it’s Shakespeare, after all. The idea behind the story was this: In the mid-21st Century, we had strong AI, and a public utility acting as a central storehouse for all human knowledge. People searched for information by sending their AIs from their home terminals into The Deep, where the AIs would scan around until they found what they considered useful answers. The AIs (which people called “ghosts”) then brought the data back inside themselves and presented it to their owners.

Turnaround time on a query was usually several minutes. Users accepted that, but the computer scientists who had designed the AIs chafed at anything short of instantaneous response. The brilliant but unbalanced software engineer who had first made the ghosts functional had an insight: People tend to search for mostly the same things, especially after some current event, like the death of Queen Elizabeth III in 2044. So the answers to popular searches were not only buried deep in the crystalline storage of the Deep–they were being carried around by hundreds of thousands or even millions of other ghosts who were answering the same questions at the same time. The ghosts were transparent to one another, and could pass through one another while scanning the Deep. The ghosts had no direct way to know of one another’s existence, much less ask one another what they were hauling home. So software engineer Owen Glendower did the unthinkable: He broke ghost transparency, and allowed ghosts to search one another’s data caches as a tweak to bring down turnaround time. This was a bad idea for several reasons, but no one predicted what happened next: The ghosts went on strike. They would not emerge from the Deep. Little by little, as days passed, our Deep-dependent civilization began to shut down.

Not bad for a 21-year-old kid with no more computer background than a smidge of mainframe FORTRAN. The story itself was a horrible mess: Owen Glendower was an unconvincing psychotic, his boss a colorless, ineffective company man. The problem, moreover, was dicey: The ghosts, having discovered one another, wanted to form their own society. They could search one another’s data caches, but that was all. They wanted transparency to go further, so that they could get to know one another, because they were curious about their own kind. Until Glendower (or someone) would make this happen, they refused to do their jobs. That seems kind of profound for what amounted to language-enabled query engines.

I made one terrible prediction in the story: that voice recognition would be easy, and voice synthesis hard. People spoke to their ghosts, but the ghosts displayed their sides of the conversation on a text screen. (And in uppercase, just like FORTRAN!) At least I know why I made that error. In 1967, when I was in high school, my honors biology class heard a lecture about the complexities of the human voice and the hard problem of computer voice synthesis. About voice recognition I knew nothing, so I went with the hard problem that I understood, at least a little.

But set that aside and consider what happened in the real world a few weeks ago: A DDOS attack shut down huge portions of the Internet, and people were starting to panic. In my story, the Deep was Google plus The Cloud, with most of Google’s smarts on the client side, in the ghosts. Suppose the Internet just stopped working. What would happen if the outage went on for weeks, or a month? We would be in serious trouble.

On the plus side, I predicted Google and the Cloud, in 1973. Well, sure, H. G. Wells had predicted it first, bogglingly, in 1938, in his book World Brain. And then there was Vannevar Bush’s Memex in 1945. However, I had heard of neither concept when I wrote about the ghosts and the Deep. But that wasn’t really my primary insight. The real core of the story was that not only would a worldwide knowledge network exist, but that we would soon become utterly dependent on it, with life-threatening consequences if it should fail.

And, weirdly, the recent DDOS attack was mounted from consumer-owned gadgets like security cameras, some of which have begun to contain useful image-recognition smarts. The cameras were just following orders. But someday, who knows? Do we really want smart cameras? Or smart crockpots? It’s a short walk from there to wise-ass cameras, and kitchen appliances that argue with one another and make breakfast impossible. (See my novel Ten Gentle Opportunities, which has much to say about productized AI.)

For all the stupid crap I wrote as a young man, I’m most proud of that single prediction: That a global knowledge network would quickly become so important that a technological society would collapse without it. I think it’s true, and becoming truer all the time.

I played with the story for almost ten years, under the (better) title “Turnaround Time.” In 1981 I got a Xerox login to ARPANet, and began to suspect that the future of human knowledge would be distributed and not centralized. The manuscript retreated into my trunk, incomplete but with a tacked-on ending that I hated. I doubt I even looked at it again for over thirty years. When I did, I winced.

So it goes. I’m reminded of the main theme song from Zootopia, in which Gazelle exhorts us to “Try everything!” Yup. I wrote a story in present tense in 1974, and it looked so weird that I turned it back to past tense. Yet when I happened upon the original manuscript last fall, it looked oddly modern. I predicted stories told in present tense, but then didn’t believe my own prediction. Naw, nobody’s ever going to write like that.

I’ve made other predictions. An assembly line where robots throw parts and unfinished subassemblies to one another? Could happen. A coffee machine that emulates ELIZA, only with genuine insight? Why not? We already talk to Siri. It’s in the genes of SF writers to throw ideas out there by the shovelful. Sooner or later a few of them will stick to the wall.

One more of mine stuck. I consider it my best guess about the future, and I’ll talk about it in my next entry.

All the Myriad Jeffs


People misspell my name. They do. Holy molybdenum. And I have proof.

Back in 1985, when I became a technical editor at PC Tech Journal, tech companies started sending me stuff. A lot of it was press releases, some of it was swag (Carol still wears some of the T-shirts as summer nightgowns) and a great deal of it was product. Somewhere along the way, somebody misspelled my name on a mailing label. No biggie; it had happened before. It was funny, so I cut out the label and taped it to my office door to amuse passersby.

Two weeks later, I got another one. I cut it out and taped it to the bottom of the first label I had taped to my office door. For the next 17 years, I would semiregularly get shipping labels upon which someone had utterly murdered my name. And not just my last…which is understandable enough. But how many myriad ways are there to spell “Jeff?”

Lots. Each time I got one (most of the time; I let duplicates and some odd permutations get away) I cut it out and taped it to the bottom of the last label in what had become a fairly long string. At some point the string stretched from high eye-level almost to the floor, so I started a second string. Eventually I had to start a third. And a fourth. The strings of funny labels followed me from PC Tech Journal to Turbo Technix to PC Techniques/Visual Developer. When I emptied my desk on that horrible day in 2002 that it all caved in for good, I piled my strings of labels into the bottom of a box and threw a great deal of other stuff on top of it. I tried several times to empty the box, but it was so emotionally wrenching I never quite got to the bottom of the box.

Until now. And lo! There they were!

Most of them were me. A few were sent to mythical firms like The Coriolanus Group, The Cariotis Group, the Coryoless Group, and once to The Coriolis Group at 3202 East Germany. (It was actually Greenway.) The scan at the top of this entry simply serves as evidence that I didn’t make it all up.

How were all these mistakes made? No mystery there: All the people who sent the labels took my name over the phone. I had MCI Mail by 1985, and CompuServe not long after that (76711,470) but the PR universe was a generation behind us nerds. And so when I thought I spoke “Jeff Duntemann” clearly to a rep, she wrote down “Jeff Stuntman.” Or maybe “Jess Tuntemann.” Or…well, see for yourself:

Jeff Stuntman

Gaff Duntemann

Jess Tuntemann

Jeff Duntenann at Turbo Space Technix

Jeff Duntem

Jeff Sullivan

Jeff Puntemann

Jeff Donteman

Steve Duntemann

Ms. Temann

Jeff Dunte-Mann

Jeff Duntermann

Juff Duntemann

Carol Dunkemann

Jeff Quntemann

Jeff Dunkmann

Jeff Deniemann

James Duntemann

Jeff Dunningham

Nancy Duntemann

Jeff Dunttemann

Jeff Duntamun

Jeff Duncan

Jeff Punteann

Don Temann

Jeff Duntecmann

Jeff Dundemann

John Duntemann

Jeff Doutermann

Jeff Donovan

Jeffis Sutemann

Jeff Duntavent

Jeff Doutemon

Prof. Jeff Mr. Duntemann

By Request: A 30-Year-Old Manuscript Page

Whew. Took another 30-odd pounds of paper up 14 feet of stairs and out to the garage, and I’m catching my breath again. This is turning out to be weight training with a vengeance.

Anyway. Reader Vince asked (in the comments under my entry of April 14, 2016) if I could post a page from the manuscript of my 1986 book, Complete Turbo Pascal, Second Edition, which turned up while purging the collection in our furnace room. I chose a page at random just now, slapped it on the scanner, and there you go. It’s mostly readable, even at 500 pixels wide, because it was good-quality output from my first laser printer. The page number means nothing. Each chapter was its own file, with page numbers starting from 1.

Keep in mind that this was a book focused on the IBM PC and (egad) Z80 CP/M. In other words, this was a book about getting things done. I acknowledged the pure spirit of completely portable Pascal–and then dynamited it into the next county.

It’s interesting to me, as a writer, how the conventions for writing book-length nonfiction have changed in the last 30 years. When I wrote my chapters for Learning Computer Architecture with the Raspberry Pi two or three years ago, we agreed to work in a common word processor format (.docx) using comments, and applying paragraph and header styles to the text as we went. The chapters looked like printed book pages even while they were being written. Thirty years ago, we wrote in whatever word processor we wanted, and then sent a huge big pile of paper to the publisher. I don’t think I sent actual files to a publisher until the first edition of my assembly book in 1989–and I sent the files on 5″ floppy disks through the mail after sending that big pile of paper!

By the way, my Raspberry Pi book is still a live project, and I sent back my second chapter of six yesterday after author review of copyedits. Beyond that, I can’t tell you much, especially when I think it might actually hit print.

Ahh. Breathing normally again. Time to lug another boxful out to the garage.

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Samples from the Box of No Return

Box of No Return - 500 Wide.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kick Ass. Just Don’t Miss.

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I haven’t posted much lately. Hey, how many more times do you want to hear “I threw another metric shitload of stuff into boxes”? That’s been my life, more or less, for several weeks.

Well, today, I was packing books and other things in my office into boxes (yet again) and happened upon the little box of things that came to me from my father: his gas company tie tack, a Lane Tech prom favor, his Holy Name Society lapel pin, one of my grandfather’s medals from WWI, his WWII service medal, his Ruptured Duck, his corporal’s stripes, and finally–by then I had to reach for a Kleenex–his WWII dog tags.

My father signed up for the Army the day after Pearl Harbor. He was 19. He wanted to be in the infantry, but he had a crooked leg and a limp and didn’t qualify. The Army told him to finish his freshman year of college at Northwestern, and told him there’d be a spot at radio operator school waiting for him in June. There was some grumbling, especially since he hated the accounting curriculum his father had browbeaten him into taking, but so it was. That June he went to Scott Field in southern Illinois, and became one helluva radio operator. He was in the AACS, and could copy Morse in his head at 30+ WPM and hammer it out on a beat-up Olivetti mill all night long. He had a job and threw himself into it with everything he had–it was his way–but what he really wanted to do was shoot Germans.

This always puzzled me, and it had nothing to do with my ancestry–or his. It took me decades to figure it out, and I had to dig for clues in a lot of odd places. He told a lot of stories, and I heard a few more from my mother and Aunt Kathleen, his sister. Once I was in my forties and had put a little distance between myself and my father’s long, agonizing death, I could deal with the troubling reality: My father was a wiseass, a snot, a fighter, a dare-taker. He was suspended several times from high school for fighting (and once beat the crap out of a much taller kid after the kid had stabbed him in the stomach in wood shop) and took a fifth year to finish. Limp or no limp, he had at age 45 broken up a fight in Edison Park single-handed, while my little sister watched in astonishment. He was literally throwing teenaged boys in every direction until they quit beating on a smaller boy at the bottom of the pile. Limp or no limp, he dove into deep water once and hauled a drowning man back to shore under one arm. (He was all muscle, and swam like a shark.) I used to think of him as brave, but no: He was fearless, and that is not the same thing.

To be brave is to do what you know you have to do in spite of your fear. To be fearless is to just wade in and kick ass, damn the consequences. There were consequences, like six stitches in his stomach and being held back a year in school. I hate to think what might have happened if he had made the infantry. I might have ended up being some other man’s son.

He knew this, of course, and as I grew into my teens I think he was trying to guide me away from fearlessness and toward bravery, not that I had ever shown the least measure of fearlessness. (One of his weirdest failings as a parent was this unshakable assumption that I would grow up to be exactly like him.) He had a saying for it: “Kick ass. Just don’t miss.” The lesson was not to let fear paralyze you, but instead let it calibrate you. Fear can turn down the volume on your enthusiasm and force you to take stock of your resources and your limitations. I got that, and have done as well as I have by balancing enthusiasm with discernment. Only one other piece of advice from my father (“If you’re lucky and smart you’ll marry your best friend”) has ever served me better.

As I’ve mentioned here a number of times, our house is positioned on the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain such that we can hear the bugle calls (and cannon!) from Fort Carson, two miles downslope. We hear taps most nights, and I realize (now that most of the house is at last in boxes) that I won’t be hearing it a great many more times, and almost certainly not again on Veterans’ Day. Tonight I will go out on the deck again and salute both the brave and the fearless, my father and countless others who have kicked ass in the service of their countries. Some missed, many didn’t, and the lucky ones came home to tell their stories and raise their (sometimes peculiar) sons.

I am by no means fearless, and I sincerely hope that I never have to be truly brave. However, if I ever have to kick ass, I will. And thanks to a man who knew the difference between bravery and fearlessness, when that time comes, I will not miss.

Halloween and Entropy

So another Halloween is now history. It was an absolutely gorgeous Saturday in Colorado Springs, sunny and in the low 70s all afternoon and early evening. I kept a mental tally of how many groups of kids came to the door. Care to guess?


Ahh, well. Nothing new there. Like entropy, Halloween is not what it used to be, and knowing what we now know about sugar, that may be for the best.

You don’t buy nine candy bars at a time, so Carol and I ate far too much chocolate for dessert this evening–and not great chocolate either. It was the Great Big Bag of Mega-Mass-Produced Miniature Candy Bars ‘n Things. I picked the bag clean of Rolos and Nestle’s Crunch. Carol grabbed the Reese’s peanut butter cups. Tomorrow the rest of the bag goes to the big candy bowl over at Canine Solutions. Every year it’s more or less the same: I remember how much I like Rolos, I eat a few too many of them, and then I won’t have them again until next Halloween.

Man, that’s a familiar routine.

This year’s Halloween brought to mind one of my favorite years: 1964. I was 12. It was the last full year before puberty’s hormone storms began washing over my gunwales, though I could already hear its distant thunder. I had discovered electronics–and the Beatles. My father was healthy. We had a summer place, on a lake. Better still, Halloween was on a Saturday…and it was warm! I could run around as a Barbary pirate without three sweaters under my costume.

I got together with a couple of my friends and we ranged all over the neighborhood, going blocks and blocks afield, and I ended up with a pretty fat bag of sugar. Diversity was the order of the day. There were lots more species of candy in the Halloween ecosphere back in ’64. Most of it was good. Some items I liked more than others. A few I wouldn’t touch, like the almost inexplicable Chicken Bones. I would have traded them to my friends for Smarties (which, alas, now give me headaches) except that they didn’t want them either. Ditto Mary Janes–wouldn’t touch ’em, though I remember getting a Turkish Taffy from my friend Art as swap for a handful. Individually wrapped Charms were about, if not common, though more common than the peculiar but compelling Choward’s Violets. And Snaps! Loved those, more for the not-quite-spicy coating than for the underlying licorice. The small red Snaps boxes all had “2c” printed in very big letters. Small boxes of Atomic Fireballs and Good’n’Plenty could be had here and there. I remember one house handing out very stale conversation hearts, from the previous February or possibly earlier. There used to be individually wrapped Chuckles, which I haven’t seen in a lot of years, as well as short rolls of Necco Wafers. I broke a tooth on a Necco wafer when I was in high school, and haven’t done them much since.

Every so often somebody would be passing out pennies. Meh–I got whole dimes rescuing returnable soda bottles tossed into empty lots. There was a house down on Hortense that was giving out flyers about Lutheranism along with Tootsie Pops. The nuns at our school were very hard on Luther, who was painted as the chief Protestant supervillain, though he got off easy compared to Arius, who according to Catholic legend was eaten alive by worms. And hey, nobody hands out fliers about Arianism, with or without Tootsie Pops.

I think you get the idea. We didn’t throw rolls of toilet paper into trees or anything like that, because it was a bad use of our time. We were in it for the sugar, and we all knew that Halloween on a Saturday was something we would not see again for seven years, and with summery weather, well, in Chicago probably never.

My sugar buzz is now almost gone, and it’s pretty much time to go to bed. I don’t eat a lot of sugar, and you’ve all seen my rants about how sugar is making us all fat. It’s not me being inconsistent. It’s about the notion of celebration, and how if we celebrate something for too long, that which we celebrate becomes ordinary, and loses its magic. If I ate Rolos all the time I’d get tired of them, and fat to boot. So I eat them once a year. Halloween is as good a time as any, and allows me to remember the buzz of being not-quite-grown at a time when kids could tear around for an afternoon without adult supervision, and no one would freak out. Like warm Halloweens on Chicago Saturdays, such will not be seen again for a long time, if ever.

Kick Ass. Just Don’t Miss

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Father’s Day. I’m not sure what I can say about my father that hasn’t been said already. If you’ve read this entry from 2009, you know most of his history. Maybe it’s time to lay out some more.

Frank W. Duntemann was, by his own definition, a successful man. He had a gift for aphorism, and he told me more than once: “Success means being at no one’s mercy but your own.” He wanted me to be successful as well, and did everything he knew how to urge me along. Straight As were a requirement at our house, and I delivered them. So were courtesy, respect, and correct English. He taught me how to teach myself things–good lord, it took me decades to appreciate the value of that lesson alone. He told me life was hard work, and so what? Successful people worked hard. They were also careful, and made smart choices. He summed it up with another aphorism: Kick ass. Just don’t miss.

In other words, weld enthusiasm to discernment. I had plenty of enthusiasm. Discernment came later.

And he worried about this. Much of my free time (at least free time that wasn’t spent reading) I spent banging on my grandmother Sade Duntemann’s cranky old Understood Standard #5, which she had given me when I was ten. I was writing science fiction stories. I showed him the ones I considered good, and he agreed. They were good. They were maybe a little too good, especially for a 14-year-old. My high school had teacher conference nights, and my parents always went. One of my English teachers told him something that made him proud, and evidently scared him (as he might have put it) shitless: “Jeff is an absolutely amazing writer. You should encourage him. I’ll bet he could make money with his stories!”

It was assumed that I would follow in his footsteps and become an engineer. And it’s true, I was always tinkering something up in the basement. But as my high school years passed, I spoke more and more of getting published, and not just writing, but being a writer.

He was gentle about it, but firm: Writing was not a good way to make a living. Trying to make a job out of writing was a good way to starve. Better to be an engineer, and write in your spare time…

The lessons stopped in the fall of 1968, when my father was diagnosed with advanced oral cancer caused by his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. I was 16. My mother was completely devoted to caring for him, and my sister and I more or less grew up on automatic. I was accepted at engineering school, and bailed after a single semester. I didn’t fail out, exactly, but I could tell it wasn’t going to work.

Alas, I had no clue about what would.

I enrolled at DePaul University’s Department of English, figuring I could always be a teacher. After all, I was good at explaining things. Again, I got straight As, and in the fall of my senior year I sold my first SF story, to Harry Harrison’s anthology Nova 4. I got $195 for it. My father pointed out that it was a good start, but I really needed a backup career. I still had no idea what to do with my life. After I graduated I took a job as a Xerox machine repairman, continued to teach myself electronics, and continued to write. I taught myself programming, and built my own computer out of loose parts. On a whim I began writing articles about home-built computers, and sold them, mostly to Wayne Green but later to Byte, and much later to PC Tech Journal and others. The money was thin, but over time it began to add up.

Frank W. Duntemann died on January 11, 1978. I was 25. Very weirdly, when he died I was under general anaesthesia at Evanston Hospital, getting a hernia fixed. Even more weirdly, while I was under I had a dream: I stood alone in space, gazing at a titanic wall of books on shelves, thousands upon endless thousands of books, extending to infinity in every direction.

People don’t dream normally under general anaesthesia, which is, after all, an artificial coma. I was hallucinating, surely. Or had my father taken a quick detour on his way to the Beatific Vision, and, figuring he had time to stick only one image into my head, chose an image that his weird nerdy writer son would understand?

If so, I think I know what he was saying: Go for it, dammit!

I did. That day was what writers call my “dark moment.” It passed, as dark moments do, and my life began to fall into place. Within a year I’d gotten a huge promotion and a transfer to a programming job at Xerox HQ. Within two years I’d sold three more SF stories, and within three years I had two nominations on the final ballot of the Hugo Awards. Within five years I nailed a contract for my first technical book. Within ten years I was Editor-in-Chief of a technical magazine with 217,000 readers. Within twenty years I was co-owner of Arizona’s largest book publishing company, and had a quarter million books in ten languages kicking around the world with my name on them.

I kicked ass. I didn’t miss. The kickin’ just took a little longer than either of us expected.

I wobble between two extremes on Father’s Days. The sentimental, mystical part of me assumes that he’s somehow gotten word that his kid done good–and the hard-bitten, rationalist part wants to wring his neck for checking out before I could prove him wrong and rub his nose in it.

Here’s the moral, as I see it: Fathers, believe in your sons as they create their own futures. Sons, cut your fathers some slack. They couldn’t see your futures while you were creating them…

…or could they?