Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

Ideas & Analysis

Discussions of various issues including suggested solutions to problems and pure speculation

The Stuff Conundrum

Steel Shelves 500 Wide.jpg

Over the years I’ve developed a couple of strong heuristics relating to Stuff:

  1. Know what you have.
  2. Know where it is.
  3. Store it in an orderly fashion, to facilitate heuristics 1 and 2.

One of the ways I developed these heuristics was by moving every three or four years as I chased jobs around the country. Time and again, everything we owned went into boxes, much of which then sat around in the basement of our new place, sometimes for years, before we opened up the boxes and looked at it. In the meantime, we often forgot what we had (or couldn’t find it) which led us to buy duplicate Stuff.

Our most recent move was better than many, because we had a lot more time to plan the packing. Our first few moves were corporate moves, which meant that my employers hired a moving company, which came to our house and loaded our Stuff into boxes in one furious day. That was worst-case, because there was no attempt at organized packing. Whatever was in the living room went into boxes. Whatever was in the bedroom went into boxes. Etc. Every box was a mishmash of books, knicknacks, throw pillows, coasters, and whatever other oddments were lying around the morning the movers came.

Later on, when we paid for our own moves, we packed our Stuff by ourselves. There were boxes of books, clearly labeled. (Lots of them.) There were boxes of kitchen gadgets, and nothing but kitchen gadgets. There were boxes of CDs and DVDs (ok, we mixed those) that did not contain books or kitchen gadgets. This made unloading it all into cabinets and bookshelves and pantries a whole lot easier.

My workshop was a whole separate problem. Ordinary life has relatively few packable categories: Clothes, shoes, kitchen stuff, books, wall art, dog supplies, knicknacks, garden supplies, etc. Out in my workshop, I had shelves full of Odd Lots in a hundred different categories, and in few cases enough of any one category to fill a box. Variable capacitors, panel meters, milk jugs full of tube sockets, tubes, transistors, test gear, and cubic yards of indescribable (except by techie nerds of my generation) kipple. So mixing categories in boxes was unavoidable, with the commonest single box label reading ODD JUNK.

Downsizing from 4500 square feet with a huge workshop to 3000 square feet with one small single-car garage as a workshop complicated matters further. I got rid of a lot of stuff in Colorado, including all but the very best of my vintage radios. I planned my shop in detail to waste as little space as possible, drew it all out on Visio, and emptied as many of the boxes onto shelves and bins and new Elfa as I could.

The rest went into the tack shed. Life got busy, and all those boxes of ODD JUNK remained unmolested until their weight began to collapse the shed’s cheap plywood built-in shelves. Just last week, I piled it all onto the patio, bought heavy-duty steel shelves at Home Depot, tore out the crappy plywood shelves, assembled the new steel shelves, and then began piling the goods back onto the shelves in the shed. Roy Harvey wanted to see a picture of the pile, which I took but didn’t consider notable enough to post. See below:

Pile of Odd Junk - 5090 Wide.jpg

There was a similar pile (though of much lighter boxes) atop our big patio table. I didn’t take a picture of that. By now, egad, I know what piles of boxes look like.

Once the new shelves in the shed were ready, I spent days opening up boxes of ODD JUNK, making piles by category, and either throwing out or re-boxing the piles. In the process, I remembered a lot of Stuff that I had long forgotten, some of it packed up when we began preparations to move to Colorado in the fall of 2002. I found many things I’d been looking for, especially tools and telescope parts. I’m still tessellating in the shop, but overall, it was a useful endeavor.

Better still, the shed (which used to be packed to the rafters) is now only about half-full. It helped that we’re taking about half of the paint cans (full of paint going back to 2006) down to the hazardous waste drop-off. It also helps that the shelves I bought had more, well, shelves. I spaced the shelves to accomodate the most common moving boxes, including the many Waldenbooks book boxes I got for free when we moved to Colorado in 2003. (See the photo at the top of this entry.) So I’m getting a lot more bang per cubic foot out there.

Best of all, I reviewed what was in the boxes, and scribbled lists on the sides of the boxes with magic marker. I may have to hunt a little for the boxes in the future, but once I find the boxes, I’ll know instantly and in detail what’s inside them.

Retired people often downsize, and many of them in my circles have told that they don’t miss all the Stuff they got rid of when they did. Me, I can handle a little of that. I got rid of my snowmobile suit, after all. But if you can’t lay hands on a 6AG7 when you need one, what is life?

Revisiting The All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything

24 years and some months ago, I published an article in PC Techniques, on the END. page, which was where I put humor, crazy ideas, and non-of-the-above. The article was “The All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything!” and as I recall it generated a lot of mail. The idea was this: We should create a way to capture knowledge, even highly eccentric knowledge, in a browsable online encyclopedia. Remember that I had this idea in 1993, when the Web was not so much in its infancy as still in utero, and broadband outside of an office or university was practically unheard of. That’s why I imagined the Encyclopedia as a central index with pointers to encyclopedia articles hosted on machines owned by the authors of the articles, with caching for popular items. You browse the index, you click on an article link, and then retrieve the article text back to your machine as a file via FTP, where it would be rendered in a window in a standard layout. (The now-defuct DMOZ Web directory worked a little like this.) HTTP would work even better, but in 1993 I’d barely heard of it.

I chewed on the idea for several years, and then went on to other things. In 2001, Wikipedia happened, and I felt vindicated, and even though the vision had an utterly different shape, it was still an all-volunteer virtual encyclopedia.

Of absolutely everything, well, not so much.

As good as it is, Wikipedia is still trying to be a paper encyclopedia. You won’t find articles on pickled quail eggs in a paper encyclopedia, because paper costs money, and takes up space. These days, with terabyte disk drives going for fifty bucks new, there’s no reason for an online encyclopedia not to cover everything. Yet Wikipedia still cleaves to its “notability” fetish like superglue; in fact, in reading the discussion pages, I get the impression that they will give up almost anything else but that. My heuristic on the topic is simple and emphatic:

Everything is notable to somebody, and nobody can judge what will be notable to whom.

In other words, if I look for something on Wikipedia and it’s not there, that’s a flaw in Wikipedia. It’s a fixable flaw, too, but I don’t expect them to fix it.

Several people have suggested that my Virtual Encyclopedia concept is in fact the Web + Google. Fair point, but I had envisioned something maybe a little less…chaotic. Others have suggested that I had at least predicted the MediaWiki software, and if Wikipedia won’t cover everything, that’s their choice and not a shortcoming of the machinery behind it.

Bingo.

Some years back I had the notion that somebody should build a special-purpose wiki to hold all the articles that Wikipedia tosses out for lack of notability. I thought about some sort of browser script that would first search Wikipedia for a topic, and if Wikipedia didn’t have it, would then look it up in WikiDebrisdia. I never wrote this up, which is a shame, because something similar to that appeared last year, when Theodore Beale (AKA Vox Day) launched Infogalactic.

It’s a brilliant and audacious hack, fersure: When a user searches Infogalactic (which, like Wikipedia, is MediaWiki-based) for a topic, Infogalactic first searches its own articles, and if the topic isn’t found, then searches Wikipedia. If the topic is available on Wikipedia, Infogalatic brings the article back and serves it to the user, and retains it in a cache for future searches. This is legal and fully in keeping with Wikipedia’s rules, which explicitly allow re-use of its material, though I’m guessing they weren’t imagining it would be used in fleshing out the holes in a competing encyclopedia.

There’s considerably more to Infogalactic than this, but it’s still very new and under active development, and its other features will have to wait for a future entry. (Note that Infogalactic is not concerned with Wikipedia’s deleted articles; that was my concept.) One of the things I find distinctive about it is that it has no notability fetish. Infogalactic states that it is less concerned with a topic’s notability than it is about whether the article is true. That’s pretty much how I feel about the issue: Notability is a holdover from the Age of Paper. It has no value anymore. What matters is whether an article is true in all its assertions, not how important some anonymous busybody thinks it might be.

I’m wondering if the future of the All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything is in fact a network of wikis. There are a number of substantial vertical-market wikis, like WikiVoyage (a travel guide) and WikiSpecies, which is a collection of half a million articles on living things. I haven’t studied the MediaWiki software in depth, so I don’t know how difficult this would be, but…how about a module that sends queries to one or more other wikis, Infogalactic-style? I doubt that Wikipedia has articles on all half a million species of living creature in WikiSpecies, but if a user wanted to know about some obscure gnat that wasn’t notable enough for Wikipedia, Wikipedia could send for the article from WikiSpecies. Infogalactic already does this, but only to Wikipedia. How about a constantly updated list of wikis? You broadcast a query and post a list of all the search hits from all the wikis on the list that received the query.

This is the obvious way to go, and it’s how I envisioned the system working even back in 1993. Once again, as I’ve said throughout my career in technical publishing, the action is at the edges. It’s all about how things talk to one another, and how data moves around among them. There’s a distributed Twitter clone called Mastodon with a protocol for communication between servers. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.

Bottom line: I admit that “absolutely everything” is a lot. It may be more than any one single encyclopedia can contain. So let a thousand wiki encyclopedias bloom! Let Wikipedia be as much or as little of an encyclopedia as it wants to be. The rest of us can fill in the gaps.


Note well: Theodore Beale has controversial opinions, and those are off-topic and irrelevant to this entry. I mentioned one of his projects, but the man and his beliefs are a separate issue. Don’t bring them up. I will delete your comments if you do.

Blogging Vs. Social Media

Wow. I think I broke another record for not posting on Contra. My last entry was July 7, which brings us to five weeks now. People aren’t asking me if I’m dead (like they used to) because most of them see me on Facebook and Twitter. So yeah: I’m not dead. I’ve just been elsewhere.

And that’s an interesting issue, especially now, at 66, when I have a far more limited supply of personal energy than I did ten or even five years ago. This being summer doesn’t help: My office is the warmest room in the house, and I simply don’t function as well with an ambient temp in the 80s. Mornings are my best times largely because they’re the coolest. Mornings are also when I work on my commercial writing projects, like Dreamhealer and FreePascal From Square One. Fiction is hard. Dreamhealer in particular has been rough, and there are times when I regret having started it at all. But 55,000 words is too much to just toss in the trunk. It will be finished. I only wish I had finished it a year ago, which was my original if excessively ambitious plan.

The key question is this: To what extent is Contra a bad use of my time?

Or, more to the point, my (limited) energy?

I don’t look at my logs much anymore, because I know what they’ll show: Script kiddies endlessly trying to brute-force their way into my instance of WordPress, plus fifteen or twenty visitors a day, and a few odd bits that I’ve never entirely understood. I suspect posting less often than I once did cuts the numbers down, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than a few hundred visitors a day, even when I was posting almost daily, unless I posted something that went viral, like my Sad Puppies summary or my analysis of EasyBits Go.

So why have I stopped posting here on Contra? This: I get more attention when I post on Facebook or Twitter. And attention is what it takes to sell indie books. Posting a promo tweet about one of my books almost always generates a sale or two. Posting something about one of my books on Contra rarely does. I’m guessing that Contra is a saturated market: My diehard fans have probably already bought everything I’m offering. It would help if I could crank out three novels a year, but if that were possible it would have happened a long time ago.

Blogs have lost a lot of the magic they had fifteen years ago. The magic went straight to Facebook, in large part because Facebook has machinery to help people find you if you want to be found. (Or even if you don’t want to be found.) If you’re a writer, especially an indie writer like me, being found is the hardest single part of the game. The blogs that continue to thrive fall into two categories: Political blogs, which satisfy our insatiable need for tribal reassurance, and single-topic blogs with fairly narrow and reasonably popular topics. The sort of general-interest blog that was my 20-year vision for Contra still exists, but is written largely by people who are already well-known for other reasons.

Another issue is that politics has infected virtually every topic you could name, including many that interest me, like nutrition, climate, genetics, education, and health insurance. It’s almost impossible to write about those topics without attracting comment harpies, or more general tribal hatred than I care to deal with. I was astonished at the anger I evoked by cautioning people to calm down after the 2016 election, lest their rampaging hatred ruin their health or literally kill them. This remains an issue: Once you’ve given yourself permission to hate, hatred is delicious, and few people can overcome that deepest of all primal hungers.

My overall goal is to write articles that won’t piss off potential readers of my fiction, and the range of appropriate topics for that kind of writing grows narrower over time as the filth that is politics seeps into damned near everything.

All that said, I’ll try and post here a little more often. I’m considering redesigning Contra (or paying someone to redesign it) so that it becomes a more general directory to everything I have online. I’ll post shorter blog entries more often, and long-form essays not as blog entries but as standalone articles listed in a sidebar. I may have to cross-post short entries on Facebook for those who don’t read Contra. Given its limitations, Twitter will remain a sort of Odd Lots repository, along with links to longer works. (I will collect my Twitter Odd Lots and post them on Contra from time to time.)

I’ve done tolerably well as an indie author since I posted the ebook edition of The Cunning Blood in July 2015. I intend to write indie fiction for the rest of my life, and solving the problem of discovery is a huge part of the challenge. I dislike Facebook and Twitter, for the sake of their ideological bias and privacy failures, but actual experiments have shown that they work. The experiments will continue. If I learn something useful, you’ll find it here–and other places too. A usable author platform requires more than one leg to be stable.

Hose Wars, Part 3: I Love It…But I Hate It

This is a series. Start here if you haven’t already.


Yes, I’m back. I didn’t pause the series because I was tired or busy. I was waiting because I wanted more data to analyze. So as of this morning I had four weeks in with the S10, and I decided to see what the trends were, and talk a little more about the experience itself.

In terms of what it was designed to do, the ResMed S10 Autoset is a complete win. If you recall from Part 1, my headband sleep study indicated an AHI of 36, meaning that over the time I was tested, I experienced and average of 36 events an hour. The events are of various species, some of which I still understand poorly. The biggie is obstructive apnea (basically, your soft tissues close your airway temporarily) which encompassed most of the events reported by Sleepyhead, assuming you include “Clear Airway” events with OAs. (I’m still trying to determine the precise difference between the two categories.) I’ve logged relatively little hypopnea (abnormally slow or shallow breathing) and almost no Cheyne-Stokes respiration. The machine is not capable of identifying central apnea events (which are basically an EEG issue) so I have no data on those.

And leaks. Lordy, do I have leaks. Still working on that. Fortunately, the S10 can tell what’s a leak and what’s some sort of breathing irregularity. It reports the leaks so I can try different things to minimize them. Useful, and some engineering is in process. Much of leak management is actually hose management, and the engineering lies in keeping the hose from pulling on the mask. I’ll describe what I end up with after I end up with it.

Now, results. For the first three nights, I tried the full-face mask I bought. It kept me awake, even with a Belsomra pill in me. I took a leftover clonazepam pill to knock me out a little more, and I managed to sleep. However, I have no intention of becoming dependent on a benzo just to sleep with a bigger mask. The USP of Belsomra is that it doesn’t disturb sleep architecture to the degree that benzos and the Z-drugs do. If I can’t do a mask on Belsomra, it’s unclear that I can do APAP at all.

So everything hinges on the “nasal pillow” mask I bought. It’s not exactly comfortable, but I’m able to sleep with it strapped to my face. It’s a ResMed AirFit P10, and has a very good reputation. I may try others as time allows.

Now, I can fall asleep with it…and sleep for about six hours. After six hours, the Belsomra is leaving my system, and there’s no longer enough to keep my orexin receptors neutralized. So come about 3:30 or 4, I can no longer fall back asleep. (I’ve been getting up twice a night for bathroom breaks for 25+ years, usually at 1:30 and 4.) Keeping the mask on if I’m not sleeping does nobody any good, so after my second bathroom break, I take the mask off and shut the machine down. This gives me 6-7 hours of treated sleep, plus another hour or two of untreated sleep. It’s not a perfect solution, but it may be the only solution I can manage. Even bad sleep is better than no sleep, and I’ll take whatever benefit from those last two hours that I can.

The improvement in my AHI has been spectacular. From a sleep study AHI of 36 I’ve gone down to an AHI of less than six on all 28 nights. And on only two nights did it go over 5. Most nights it’s less than 3. Last night, I had only four events across 5.53 hours with the mask on, for an AHI of 0.72. That’s not shabby. In fact, an AHI of less than one is considered no apnea at all. I don’t know why I have more events on some nights than others. That’s a subject of ongoing research.

There have been some weirdnesses. My prescription called for a pressure of 6-18 cm. (The S10 supposedly adjusts pressure to what it needs to clear an event.) What I found is that at least once a night, the pressure was up above 17, and I felt like I was being blown up like a balloon. I would wake up completely, and become so annoyed that I had a hard time falling asleep again. Not useful. So I set the machine to vary only between 6 and 13 cm. Now there are no excursions above 13, and from the graphs I can tell that I can sleep when it’s pumping in the vicinity of 12 cm. Median pressure is 7.7 cm. Given the reported AHIs, nothing of value was lost in the adjustment.

Now the bad news: APAP has taken all the pleasure out of sleeping. It’s a hard thing to describe. I’m aware of the mask as I try to fall asleep. It’s a constant irritation, and without the Belsomra I don’t think I would sleep at all. Relaxing completely is difficult. Maybe it’ll get better with more practice, but after 28 nights I’m thinking that whatever I’m experiencing now is what I’ll be experiencing for the rest of my life, which is nothing if not depressing. I’ve begun looking forward to the final two hours of the night as my reward for suffering through the first six hours.

I’m not sure what, if anything, can be done about this.

Now, one can’t argue with results. I don’t feel like a 10-year-old again, and I’m good with that. I wouldn’t mind feeling like a 20-year-old, but I’m not getting that either. The improvements are incremental but real: I’m getting more ideas, spending more time reading, and more time at the keyboard. I don’t feel a great deal more energetic, but something is getting the work done, and I can only credit that to better sleep.

I’m not sure there will be a Part 4 to this series, but when insights become available I’ll report here. So far…

…so good.

Hose Wars, Part 2: To Breathe, Perchance to Leak

This is a series. Start here if you haven’t already.


I’m not a good sleeper, and never have been. When my publishing company (now mostly forgotten) collapsed back in 2002, I developed severe insomnia. I was getting as little as three hours of sleep per night, often less, and sometimes none at all. After a couple of weeks of this, I started to hallucinate cute little cartoon devils doing calisthenics at the foot of my bed, along with other things I’m not sure I can describe. Sleep isn’t optional. I sometimes think we sleep in order to dream undisturbed, and that dreams are somehow where our humanity comes from. If we can’t sleep, eventually we start to dream while we’re awake.

My big fear in starting APAP therapy was that I couldn’t sleep with a mask on my face. Had I been a better sleeper, I’d probably have begun thereapy years earlier. I was given two masks: One covered my nose and mouth. This is called a “full-face” mask, even though it doesn’t cover your eyes. The other is harder to describe: It’s a little plastic thing on an elastic strap that inserts a couple of cushioned tubes into your nostrils. These are called “nasal pillow” masks, and they’re a great deal less intrusive than full-face masks.

The whole point of CPAP/APAP therapy is to push enough air into your nose to keep your airway open, and to open it if by some chance it closes. For this to work, you either need a full-face mask so that if your mouth opens it won’t matter, or with a nasal pillow mask you need some way to keep your mouth closed. There are chin straps of various sorts and other things lumped into a category called “headgear.” Yet more stuff to tie myself up in; no thanks. I did the obvious: I used that blue surgical tape you buy at Walgreen’s to tape my mouth shut.

It worked. It worked, at least, until the machine upped the pressure for some reason. The higher pressure blew the tape off one corner of my mouth, which became a massive air leak, one noisy enough to wake me up.

This is my problem in a nutshell: APAP is noisy and uncomfortable, and keeps me awake. The noise I’m getting used to, at least the fairly modest noise from the machine itself. Leaks are a separate issue. I sleep on my side, which means that both kinds of mask eventually contact my pillow. I can position myself carefully when going to sleep, and that generally works. But if I squirm around even a little while I’m asleep, my pillow nudges the mask to one side, making noise, or (with the full-face mask) spraying air into my eyes. That wakes me up in a hurry.

To keep me asleep despite masks and leaks and hoses flapping around, the doc gave me a prescrption for a sleeping pill called Belsomra (suvorexant.) It’s the first of a new class of insomnia treatments that target the orexin receptors in the brain, rather than the GABA receptors. Pills like Ambien (zolpidem) target GABA, and force you to sleep. If you take one and don’t hit the sack, you’ll start dreaming anyway, and say or do dumb things. The orexin receptors keep you awake. Interfere with their operation using an orexin antagonist like Belsomra, and the signals to stay awake go away. You drift off. I’ve taken Ambien, and it always felt like a whack to the back of my head. Boom! I’m out. Belsomra has a gentler touch, and from what I’ve read, it doesn’t affect sleep architecture (i.e., the different stages of sleep like REM) nearly as much as more preemptive pills like Ambien.

It’s expensive, but very fortunately, Medicare covers it. And so far, it’s done a pretty fair job keeping me asleep in spite of mask issues. As for mask issues, there’s a third sort of mask that I’m going to buy and try: A nose mask. This is like a smaller full-face mask that only covers your nose. It may not be any better than nasal pillows, but it’s cheap enough to do the experiment and be sure.

I’ve found that there’s a downside to blowing air up your nose. A couple downsides, actually, but there’s one big one, and that’s where I’ll start next time.

Hose Wars, Part 1: Overview

ResMed S10 AirSense 500 Wide.jpg

About a year or so ago, the bottom began to fall out of my supply of personal energy. At the time I assumed it was due to my age, or to all the effort I was pouring into our move down here from Colorado Springs, selling the Springs house, fixing up our Scottsdale house, and so on.

Now, virtually all of that stuff is done with…and my energy hasn’t come back.

I started a decent new novel at the end of 2016, and while I got off to a pretty brisk start, I’m now 42,000 words in and making little progress. I have other projects that I’ve done some work on, however, writing is the most difficult thing I do. It’s also the most important to me personally. If something starts getting in the way of my writing, I have to get to the bottom of it.

So it was that in February of this year I did a sleep study. I’d had one done at a Colorado Springs sleep clinic in 2010, but the wires and electrodes and everything kept me awake so much of the night that the pulmonologist declared the study inconclusive. To have a sleep study, well, it helps to be able to sleep.

Sleep study tech has gotten way better in the last eight years. I went down to the sleep lab and picked up a gadget that was something like a stiff but adjustable plastic headband. The part that contacted my forehead had a tacky, silicone-y feel to it, and embedded in the silicone were several electrodes and an LED oximeter. There were no wires and no separate electrodes to get tangled up in, like I had in 2010. The electrodes provided some EEG functionality, and the oximeter continuously monitored my blood oxygen, which is an issue I’ve had for some years. (It was one reason we no longer live at 6700 feet.)

The headband gadget was remarkably comfortable, at least compared to the ratsnest they trussed me up in back in 2010. I was able to sleep on my side, which I’ve done now for probably forty years. (When I sleep on my back I tend to compress the ulnar nerves in my arms, which makes them go numb and then prickly when I wake up.) I took a new-model sleeping pill (I’ll come back to that) and managed to sleep for almost the entire night while the headband gathered data.

The good news ended there. I returned the headband device to the sleep lab, where they downloaded the data and sent the reports to my pulmonologist. I had an AHI of 36, which means I stopped breathing an average of 36 times an hour across the seven hours that I slept with the thing on my head. Basically, I stopped breathing every…two…minutes.

No wonder my blood oxygen was excursing down into the low 80s.

Breathing is good, and tech steps in where nature fails. I was given a prescription for a ResMed AirSense 10 Autoset APAP device (above) and was fitted with a couple of face masks. Laying hands on the actual machine involved a surreal struggle with insurance paperwork, but I finally got it, and about ten days ago I started using it. For the first week, my average AHI was…3.67. That’s literally an order of magnitude better than what the headband reported. Last night was my best night yet, with an AHI of only 2.44.

The AirSense 10 records data on a standard SD card. There’s a clever open-source reporting utility called Sleepyhead that you can install under Windows, Mac, or Linux. There’s a Linux binary for Ubuntu 14.04, or you can rebuild from source. Here’s the wiki for the software, with a link to the user guide. (The software is written in C++, alas, or I’d be tempted to tinker it.)

Sleepyhead aggregates your data by day, week, or month (or just “always”) and presents a number of graphs for the stats gathered by the machine. There’s also a feature to report oximetry data, but I don’t have a recording oximeter yet and haven’t tried that feature, which is described as “cranky.”

I’ve read a number of people report that starting in on CPAP made them feel like ten-year-olds again. This has never been a longing I’ve had (what, go through puberty twice? I think not!) and in truth the improvement I’ve felt so far has been, speaking charitably, incremental. The road has been rocky, and I’m going to have to divide the full story into several entries. Stay tuned.

Writing Magical Systems

The first argument I ever had with a girl I cared deeply about involved the nature of magic. As I described back when I first released my novel Ten Gentle Opportunities , Lee Anne thought of magic as moody, ethereal, and completely impossible to predict. I thought of it as a sort of immaterial engineering. This disagreement turned out to be the least of our problems; she was 13 and I was 14, with all that that implies.

Fifty years later, I released an entire novel about magic. It has roots in that argument. I did try it her way: In 1974 I wrote a story (“Whale Meat”) containing Lee Anne-style magic, and although I’m happy with how it turned out, it was murder to write and isn’t one of my favorites among the things I’ve done. Ten Gentle Opportunities explored (among other things) how magic might be similar to software. The key is that magic should (ideally) be an internally consistent system, and not just Harry Potter-style abracadabra in which you can pull any damned rabbit out of any damned hat. I thought long (50 years!) and hard about what a magical system might be and how to create one. If you’re a writer, a distillation of my notes might be useful. Perforce:

There are three Big Questions you need to ask yourself as you take on a task of designing a magical system:

  • What is the source of magical power? Where does it come from and how do you obtain it? In Larry Niven’s Warlock stories, magic is an inherent property of the created world, an essence present everywhere but which may be depleted by use over time, like a seam of coal. Aleister Crowley (a real guy, if an unutterable nutcase) created a system of sex magick, which was powered (as best I can figure) by orgasms. In Ten Gentle Opportunities, magical power emerges from a fully-developed pineal eye, which is present in a small fraction of humanity and must be perfected by practice and study. The magical force itself is drawn from primordial chaos, and is inexhaustible. In some systems, magical force emerges from sacred or cursed artifacts, and in others from alchemical concoctions. Can magic be stored somehow for later use, or use by ordinary people? Stypek stores ten nuggets of magical force in stasis inside a wand made of “wereglass,” which is dense and scary and serves a plot point more than the magical system. (Sometimes you have to do that.)
  • Who is able to manipulate magical power? Magic is sometimes the purview of explicitlty magical beings like elves, fairies, pixies, etc. Sometimes it’s a skill that may be learned by anybody. In my system, it depends on a genetic talent that mundanes don’t have and can’t obtain. Spellbenders like Stypek, in fact, are incomplete magicians, in that they can examine and change magical spells but can neither draw magic from chaos nor send it back when no longer needed. (Unwanted or abandoned magic can cause all sorts of problems, like animating corpses into zombies.) Can one magician do things, or does it take some sort of cooperative effort? (One flashes on Crowley’s sex magic.) Can multiple magicians do bigger or more difficult things working together? (This was the case in the classic Witches of Karres.) Are magicians specialists? (Larry Correia’s are; see below.)
  • What are the limits of magical power? This is the big one, kids. Magic that can do anything is…boring. Stories engage us by pitting characters against challenges and their own limitations. A magician who controls magic without limits can’t lose and so isn’t especially interesting. One of the best modern magical systems is what Larry Correia built into his Dark Magic / Spellbound / Warbound trilogy. Magical persons are specialists, sorted into numerous categories by the nature and limits of their power. Some teleport. Some command electricity. Some influence weather. Some heal. Some control gravity, and so on. All of these powers draw on personal energy, which the body creates from food and rest, and when that energy is used up, the powers fail for a time until the body can restore its energy levels. All magical/super powers must have limitations. Superman has Kryptonite. Green Lantern’s lantern doesn’t work on anything colored yellow. (At least this was the case when I was reading my friends’ comics in the first half of the 1960s.) Sometimes magic is tied to the Classical Elements, Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Aether. (Brian Niemeier’s magical system includes but is not limited to this.) You can be as clever as you like, but your magic must have quirks and limitations.

Answering these three questions in detail will get you well over halfway to a usable magical system. Create a notefile (what I call a mumblesheet, a marvelous term coined by the late and much missed George M. Ewing) and put your concept down in outline (or at least bullet list) form. If you have any kind of imagination at all, writing descriptions of your magicians and their skills will bring out further insights that will make the system interesting. In my system of magic, the difficulty of creating magical spells depends on the complexity of the spell–though perhaps not the way you would expect. Complicated spells are easy, but simple spells require enormous skill and are almost impossible to change. (Stypek is a spellbender, and changing spells–call it magic hacking–is his one big trick.) One of the novel’s conceits is that Stypek’s magic is literally object-oriented programming: Spells have properties and methods, which magicians and spellbenders can see and manipulate in the air in front of them. Others have drawn the parallel between magic and software before me, especially Rick Cook, in his Wiz series.

Your magicians should be quirky too. In my system, a fully developed pineal eye opens in the foreheads of magicians once they hit puberty. The eyes begin as red, and then with practice and study progress through the spectrum toward violet and then adamant (diamond-clear.) Expertise classes are named after gems that show the color of the class.The further toward adamant the eye is, the more powerful the magician. Adamant magicians are the baddest-assed; ruby-classers are poseurs, or dabblers of little power who can force mice to dance and that’s about it. In spellbenders, the pineal eye never erupts at all, and at best looks like a birthmark in the middle of the forehead.

Magical systems need quirks and limitations, but be careful not to make the system so complicated that readers have a hard time grasping it. I got a couple of emailed complaints about Stypek’s magic being hard to follow, but my beta readers had no trouble with it. (One did advise me to quit tinkering with it, and he was right: My first impulse is to throw new ideas into a story every time I go over it.) Some of your readers will just roll with it, especially if the plot and characters are compelling. Others will complain. That’s how writing fiction works. Roll with the criticism, and learn what you can from it.

It helps to ask yourself what sensory impressions accompany the generation and/or use of magic. Does magic make noise? Stink? Cause migraines? Shake the floor? Radiate colored light? Probably the best way to get a handle on this is to write a couple of scenes of your magic system in use. Not everything will work, but the stuff that does work, add to the description of the system. With some luck, the scenes may later find homes as short stories or scenes from a novel.

Finally, the three words that ought to be on every writer’s wall: Just write it. Trust your subconscious. If you’ve laid enough groundwork, you’ll get a story out of any reasonable system of magic. Be diligent and you’ll get several. Throw your back into it, and you’ll get as many as you want. Skills, challenges, discoveries, and interaction with other people are the building blocks of all fiction, especially genre fiction, and double-especially SFF. Magic embraces all of these.

Go for it.

The Domain Name Ambush

Yeah, I know: I been away a long time. Why is complex, but house issues, health, and a surprisingly difficult WIP (not to mention a Caribbean cruise) all conspired to eat March. I’ll have more to say about the health issues once there’s more to say about them. The house is coming along well, and although I’m not in truth feeling a whole lot better (hint: it’s an oxygen issue) some time is at least opening up, hence today’s big story.

I’m working quietly with a number of people on a joint project that I can’t talk about right now. However, I promised the group that I would contribute a domain for it. The project is not new, and my promise was made literally years ago. At the time, I looked at what we all considered the perfect domain–and someone else already owned it. No biggie; it happens all the time. The project itself has been on again and off again, but it seems to have gained a little momentum in recent weeks. Yesterday, almost three years later, I checked for that perfect domain…and it was available. So I grabbed it. I registered it precisely the same way I registered the last couple of domains I registered.

Now, apres domain, le deluge.

I’ve gotten at least thirty emails soliciting site design, logos, PHP programming, shopping carts, artwork, SEO, and other Web folderol. I’ve gotten nine calls to my mobile, same thing. And a text message.

This has never happened before, and I’ve been registering domains since 1995. I’m not sure what’s changed. However, I noticed after only a little inspection that most (and possibly all) of the solicitations are from India. (As with most spam, a lot of them are cagey about where they actually are.) Every single person who left voicemail sounded Indian, and several were quite honest about their locations.

So what’s going on here? Has the same thing happened to any of you? My first guess is that some sort of scraper service is offering lists of recent domain name registrants to Indian Web shops. Maybe the Indians have made Web dev a big priority in the three or four years since I last registered a domain. I don’t know. In truth, I don’t care that much, except perhaps for the calls to my mobile. That’s supposed to be illegal, but if they’re in India, it would be hard to sue them for breaking a US law.

As I said, the spam doesn’t bother me, and I don’t generally answer calls from numbers I don’t recognize. I suspect that after a few days, they’ll move on to more recent registrations and get out of my hair. We’ll see.

Now I have to get back to that Odd Lots I’ve owed you guys since February. Tomorrow fersure.

Trouble with the Messiah’s Handle

On the 10th of December, I declared Christmas Music! I yanked the general music mix thumbdrive from my car’s USB port (a car with a USB port…there’s something I didn’t predict back in high school!) and replaced it with the Christmas Mix thumbdrive. I know some of the stores have been playing Christmas music since Labor Day, but I don’t do that. 30 days and that’s it. Two weeks before Christmas is plenty soon enough, and we don’t end Christmas celebration on December 26th. Why constrain Christmas music time? Easy. I don’t want to get tired of it. I’ve talked about this before: Do Christmas too much or too long, and it ceases to be special.

And there’s that wonderful first few days when you hear songs you haven’t heard for almost a year (at least if you stay out of Target and Wal-Mart) that have in some wonderful fashion become new again. Loreena McKennitt’s “The Seven Rejoices of Mary” brought tears to my eyes, which can be an issue when you’re trying to merge onto the 101 beltway. And that wonderful cover of “I Heard the Bells” by Ed Ames, especially the kicker line, which in Ames’ bottomless canyon of a voice gives me chills and then makes me want to cheer: “God Is Not Dead Nor Does He Sleep.”

I added one this year, as I do most years. John Rutter’s “Angel’s Carol” came on our classical station, and I instantly liked it. Zoomed over to Amazon, paid 99c, and it was mine. That’s how music is supposed to work. Shame it took us so long to get there.

Not all Christmas music appeals to me. Jazzy stuff, well, no. Santa Claus stuff, yuck. Frank Sinatra, don’t get me started. “I Wonder As I Wander” has always troubled me. Not sure why. There seems to be a back-current of despair in it, and I absolutely cannot abide despair. Ditto “The Coventry Carol,” with a melody like something you’d sing at a bad funeral.

And so to my big sort-of-a-complaint for today. KBAQ plays classical Christmas music and does a good job of it. They’re particularly fond of “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” from Handel’s Messiah, and I like it too, especially the cover by Glad. When it comes up on my Christmas mix thumb drive I sing along. Good, high-spirited, affirming, all the stuff I really really like. Until we get to this part:

…and his name shall be Wonderful;

His name shall be Counselor;

His name shall be Mighty God;

The Everlasting Father…

BZZZZT! Hold on there. We’re talking about Jesus here, and I’m a Trinitarian. Jesus is not “the Everlasting Father.” Yes, I know, the verse is taken from Isaiah, written long before we had a clear handle on the Trinity. It still sticks a little, especially in a Christmas context. Ahh, well. Prophecy is hard. Isaiah was doing the best he could, and nailed all the rest of it. I’ll give him that bit, and assume God the Everlasting Father won’t be annoyed if Handel’s Messiah gets the Messiah’s handle a little mixed up.

Nor will I. I save my annoyance for those insufficiently infrequent moments when I’m in a store somewhere and they start to play “Santa Baby.” Please take that song and stuff it up the chimney tonight. Then light a nice fire, the hotter the better.

It’s turning out to be a marvelous Christmas. Don’t forget the Geminids tonight. And sing along with those Christmas songs. That’s what they’re there for.

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.