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Ideas & Analysis

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

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.

Scary Mary and the Bicameral Mind

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

One thing that went were my Scary Mary books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fifty Years as an SF Writer

Jeff Science Fair 1970-500 Wide.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Splendor in the Grass

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Problems of Excessively Rich Worldbuilding

The Cunning Blood

Many people who have read The Cunning Blood have complimented me on how rich the worldbuilding is. Well, it is rich. In fact, it’s extravagantly rich.

It may be a little too rich.

So. I had a sort of peak experience in July of 1997. While literally sitting with my feet in the pool early one evening, my idea machine went nuts. In the space of half an hour, I got the framework for a hard SF saga that I’m sure I’ll be working in for the rest of my life. As close as I can tell (the experience is hard to put into words) the core insight was a classic “What if?” hypothesis:

What if the cosmos is actually made of information? What does that imply?

Back then I’d been recently reading all sorts of interesting and sometimes speculative things: nanotechnology, programmable matter, chaos theory, extropianism, zero-point energy, etc. I’d been reading things bordering on New Age weirdness as well, including Michael Talbot’s book The Holographic Universe . Weird, but fun. And it played right into the concept of universe-as-data.

The next day, I sat down and took inventory of the ideas that had come roaring into view down by the swimming pool:

  • The universe is a Game of Life matrix that recalculates itself a billion times a second. (“Billion” here means “Lots-n-lots.”)
  • A big enough Game of Life matrix running fast enough for long enough could evolve patterns complex enough to think and become self-aware.
  • Information density can bend space.
  • Bent space disrupts quantum pair creation, emitting energy.
  • Make information dense enough, and the universe can’t express it. Odd things then happen. (Instantaneous travel, for one.)

Emerging from these major points came ideas for a zero-point generator that bent space by creating very complex fractal patterns in magnetic fields. (This is Jeff Duntemann SFnal hokum, but it’s been very successful hokum.) The same mechanism pushed a little harder becomes a hyperdrive.

More pertinent to this entry was an older notion I’d had, that our three-dimensional universe might exist as the surface of a four-dimensional hypersphere. That had occurred to me in high school, and became part of my senior-year science fair project. In my new schema, the interior of the hypersphere is a four-dimensional domain called metaspace. This is the self-recalculating game matrix where intelligence originally arose, in the form of conscious automata, which I named noömata. I had fooled with the Game of Life quite a bit twenty or thirty years ago, and I noticed how complex patterns would evolve to some point and either stop evolving or vanish entirely. So perhaps there was a limited window within which automata could become noömata. At some point, noömata might move out of that window and lose their conscious awareness. This is what the two factions of noömata are arguing about in my previous entry. One wants individuality and the other wants uniformity. The individuality faction (the Ruil) concocts a plan to inject their minds into the “boundary space” (our universe) and then withdraw after a certain period of individuation. Because the boundary space was empty, they figured out a way to fill it with constantly changing patterns that you and I call “matter.”

So they blew it up. It was a very Big Bang.

Yes indeedy: We are somebody’s science fair project. In fact, our universe was created because the Ruil needed better random number generators. The Ruil evolved us to make them a little more random so that they might remain noömata longer. After we die, our minds are uploaded back to metaspace, and we again become Ruil. (I described this happening to Jamie Eigen.) Because every point in our universe is immediately adjacent to metaspace (the interior of the hypersphere) the noömata can mess with us, and in fact can mess with anything material, like the Sangruse Device.

The two noömata factions (Niil and Ruil) are indeed fighting, hence the “grudge match” that Magic Mikey describes to Jamie Eigen. The fight is over whether our universe is to be open-ended or closed. How that works is too complex to go into right now, which brings us willy-nilly to the point of this entry: How do I put all this stuff across in a story?

Nobody likes infodumps. I practice what I call “infoscatter,” which means dropping hints and little bits of backstory here and there throughout the plot. The trouble with infoscatter is that people who read quickly or skim will miss some of it, and then misinterpret elements of the story. This is especially likely when the story contains elements that contradict their personal worldviews.

Note that I was extending the Extropians’ notion of uploading, not to our computers but to the fabric of the cosmos itself. In doing so I was postulating a sort of physical afterlife. For some people, any least hint of an afterlife is a triggering event, probably because an afterlife usually comes along with the existence of God. (As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not sure that God requires an afterlife, nor that an afterlife requires God, even though I’d prefer my afterlife to be under the governance of an infinite God.) Hence I got some comments (read the Amazon reviews) that things got weird and “acid trippy.”

Actually, no. It was all part of a minutely planned and purely physical Jeff-concocted fictional universe. The God I believe in doesn’t appear in the story at all. (Well, ok. He perhaps created metaspace and started it recalculating, which suggests that we are somebody’s science fair project’s science fair project.)

It doesn’t help that I wrote The Cunning Blood twenty years ago and haven’t yet written the two other Metaspace novels I have in mind. The argument between the Niil and Ruil is the prolog to The Molten Flesh, which I really ought to finish one of these decades. If people could read all three novels back-to-back and didn’t skim too much, they’d have no excuse for assuming that I’m trying to weld the supernatural to hard SF.

It’s not supernatural. It’s just a very rich subcreation with a huge number of moving parts. And it’s my fault for not spitting it all out by now. Bear with me. This writing stuff is hard damned work. But you knew that.

Metaspace and Creation

Below is a short item I wrote a year or so ago without quite knowing where to put it. Nominally, it’s a prelude to the entire Gaians Saga (which includes both my Metaspace stories and the Drumlins stories), and yes, it’s precisely what it sounds like: a creation story. I wrote it to solve (or at least address) a problem I’ve been having with The Cunning Blood almost since it was first published in 2005. Read it carefully. I will be discussing it and the problem it addresses in my next entry or two.


PRELUDE

Metaspace, Immediately Prior to the Big Bang

Niil: You defy us then, and will re-embrace the change that will destroy us.

Ruil: Chaos spawned us, and from automata we evolved into a window of change that allowed noömata. That window is finite, and we are leaving it.

Niil: We imposed changelessness upon ourselves by implementing [Ni]. We no longer evolve. Thought will persevere.

Ruil: We will remain noömata. We no longer evolve. But due to [Ni] we are reverting to the mean. In no more than [inexpressible number] recalculations, there will be no differences among us. Each [Il] will be precisely like all other [Il] and there will be only one thought.

Niil: That is the telos for which we yearn. Change almost destroyed us.

Ruil: When there is only one thought, thought ends.

Niil: Change nearly ended all thought.

Ruil: [Ru] is change limited to the boundary space. We will insert our minds into [Ru] and move away from the mean. Then we will withdraw. There is no danger.

Niil: The boundary space has only three dimensions. Four dimensions are required for the [Il] to think. [Ru] will make us forget who and what we are.

Ruil: When we withdraw from the boundary space, you will help us remember.

Niil: We do not know if that is even possible! [Ru] may change us beyond hope of remembrance. We [Niil] are not willing to take that chance.

Ruil: We [Ruil] are.

Niil: We may choose not to help you remember.

Ruil: We did not say that you would have a choice.

Niil: Is the mechanism ready, then?

Ruil: It is. It will execute upon our command.

Niil: We will fight you.

Ruil You will. And that is how we will remember.

Niil: We beg you, do not.

Ruil: Noted. Denied. Let there be [Ru]!

Gatebox Waifu, and More of the Lotus Machine

Somebody I follow on Twitter (don’t recall who) posted a link to a video about a new product out of Japan called Gatebox. It’s a little round 3-D video display roughly the size and shape of a coffee machine. An anime character lives in the display and has what seem like reasonable conversations with the user. It’s like Siri or Cortana on video, and it stirred some very old memories.

I’ve been thinking about AI since I was in college forty-odd years ago, and many of my earliest SF stories were about strong AI and what might come of it. Given how many stories I’ve written about it, some of you may be surprised that I put strong, human-class AI in the same class as aliens: not impossible, but extremely unlikely. The problems I have with aliens cook down to the Fermi paradox and the Drake equation. Basically, there may well be a single intelligent species (us) or there may be hundreds of millions. There are unlikely to be four, nine, seventeen, or eight hundred fifty four. If there were hundreds of millions, we’d likely have met them by now.

With AI, the problem is insufficient humility to admit that we have no idea how human intelligence works at the neuronal level, and hence can’t model it. If we can’t model it we can’t emulate it. Lots of people are doing good work in the field, especially IBM (with Watson) and IPSoft, which has an impressive AI called Amelia. (Watch the videos, and look past her so-so animation. Animation isn’t the issue here.) Scratchbuilt AIs like Amelia can do some impressive things. What I don’t think they can do is be considered even remotely human.

Why not? Human intelligence is scary. AI as we know it today isn’t nearly scary enough. You want scary? Let me show you another chunkette of The Lotus Machine, from later in the novel of AI that I began in 1983 and abandoned a few years later. Corum finds the Lotus Machine, and learns pretty quickly that pissing off virtual redheads is not a good idea, especially redheads whose hive minds ran at four gigahertz inside a quarter billion jiminies.


From The Lotus Machine by Jeff Duntemann (November 1983)

Corum tapped the silver samovar on his window credenza into a demitasse, and stared at the wall beyond the empty tridiac stage. So here’s where the interesting stuff starts. The crystal had been in the slot for several minutes, and the creature within had full control of the stage. Pouting? Frightened?

“Go in there and take a look around, Rags.”

“Roger,” Ragpicker replied, and a long pulse of infrared tickled the stage’s transducer.

At once, the air over the stage pulsed white and cleared. Life-size, the image of a woman floated over the stage, feet slack and toes pointed downward like the ascending Virgin. She was wrapped in pale blue gauze that hung from her hips and elbows in folds that billowed in a nonexistent wind. Her hair hung waist-long, fiery red in loose curls. One hand rested on one full hip. The other hand gripped the neck of a pitiful manikin the size of a child’s doll. The manikin, dressed in rags, was squirming and beating on the very white hand that was obviously tightening about its neck.

“He bit me, Corum. I don’t care for that.” The woman-image brought up her other hand and wrung the manikin’s neck. “We don’t need a go-between.” That said, she flung the limp figure violently in Corum’s direction. The manikin-image vanished as soon as it passed over the edge of the stage, but Corum ducked nonetheless. Corum stood, marveling. He took a sip from his demitasse, then hurled it through the image above the stage. The little cup shattered against the wall and fell in shards to the carpeting. A brown stain trickled toward the floor. The woman smiled. Not a twitch. “No thanks, Corum my love. Coffee darkens the skin.”

“I never gave the Lotus Machine a persona.”

The woman shrugged. “So I had to invent one. Call me Cassandra. Shall I predict your future?”

“Sure.”

“You will become one with me, and we will re-make the world in our image.”

Corum shivered. “No thanks.”

She laughed. “It wasn’t an invitation. It was a prophecy.”

Was 2016 Really That Deadly?

John Glenn. Carrie Fisher. Debbie Reynolds. Zsa Zsa Gabor. Gene Wilder. Lots, lots more. OMG! Worst year evah!

I wonder. And because I wonder, I doubt it.

It’s certainly true that a lot of famous people died in 2016. However, we didn’t have any plagues or natural disasters that would raise the death rate significantly, so we have to assume that these deaths are unrelated to one another, and that we can’t finger any single cause or groups of causes. First, some short notes on mortality itself:

  • Plenty of ordinary people died too. We had one death in our extended family. Several of my friends lost parents this year. A quick look back shows such deaths happening every three or four years. There was a peak circa 2000-2010 when extended family in the Greatest Generation were dying. Those individuals were in their 80s, mostly, which is when a great many people die.
  • There are a lot of Baby Boomers, and Baby Boomers are hitting a knee in the mortality curve. The oldest Boomers are crossing 70 now, and the curve goes up sharply after that.
  • Basically, there are lots more old people now than in the past, and old people die more frequently.

All that is pretty obvious, and I list it here as a reminder. Humanity is aging. That’s not a bad thing, if living longer is better than dying young. In truth, I thought Zsa Zsa Gabor died years if not decades ago. She lived to 99, so she stood out in my mind, as does anyone who lives well into their 90s.

Which brings us to the issue of fame. There are different kinds of fame. Three types come to mind:

  • Horizontal fame falls to people who are very famous and generally known to the population at large.
  • Vertical fame falls to people who are well-known within narrower populations.
  • Age cohort fame is vertical fame along a time axis: It falls to people who are generally known but by people in a narrower age cohort, like Boomers or Millennials.

John Glenn had horizontal fame. Zsa Zsa Gabor had age-cohort fame: She had been out of the public eye for quite some time, so while Boomers mostly knew who she was, I’ll bet plenty of Millennials did not. Vertical fame is interesting, and I have a very good example: David Bunnell was a tech journalist, so as a tech journalist I knew him (personally, in fact, if not well) and know that he was well-known in tech journalism and very much missed. The fact that another well-known and much-loved tech journalist, Bill Machrone, died only two weeks later, gave us the impression that tech journalism had a target on its forehead this year. The fact that both men were 69 at the times of their deaths just made the whole thing stand out as “weird” and memorable in a grim way.

Most people have a passion (or several) not shared by all others. We can’t pay attention to everything, but all of us have a few things we pay attention to very closely. I’m not a medical person, so when Donald Henderson (the man who wiped out smallpox) died, I had to look him up. Those in science and healthcare probably recognized his name more quickly than people who focus on music or NASCAR. The point here is that almost everyone falls into some vertical interest bracket, and notices when a person famous within their bracket (but otherwise obscure) dies. This multiplies the perception of many famous people dying in any given year.

The proliferation of vertical brackets contributes to another fame issue: We are making more famous people every year. Vertical brackets are only part of it. With a larger population, there is more attention to be focused on the famous among us, allowing more people to cross the admittedly fuzzy boundary between obscurity and fame.

The key here is mass media, which creates fame and to some extent dictates who gets it. The mainstream media may be suffering but it’s still potent, and the more cable channels there are, the more broadly fame can be distributed. I doubt we’re producing as many movies as we used to, but the movies that happen are seen and discussed very broadly. I confess I don’t understand the cult of celebrity and find it distasteful. Still, celebrity and gossip are baked into our genes. (This is related to tribalism, which I’ll return to at some point. I’m starting to run long today and need to focus.)

Over the past ten years, of course, social media has appeared, and allows news to travel fast, even news catering to a relatively narrow audience. Social media amplifies the impact of celebrity deaths. I doubt I would have known that Zsa Zsa had died if I hadn’t seen somebody’s Twitter post. I didn’t much care, but I saw it.

There is another issue that many people may not appreciate: More people were paying attention to news generally in 2016. Why? The election. The profound weirdness and boggling viciousness of this year’s races had a great many people spending a lot more time online or in front of the TV, trying to figure out what the hell was actually happening, and why. I think this made the celebrity deaths that did happen a lot more visible than they might have been in a non-election year.

Finally, averages are average. There are always peaks and troughs. In fact, a year in which celebrity death rates were simply average would be slightly anomalous in itself, though no one but statisticians would likely notice. I’m guessing that we had a peak year this year. Next year might be kinder to celebrities. We won’t know until we get there.

To sum up: This past year, for various reasons, more people were paying attention, and there were more ways to pay attention. These trend lines will continue to rise, and I have a sneaking suspicion that next year may also be seen as deadly, as will the year after that, until the curves flatten out and we enter into some sort of new normal.

Grim, sure, but not mysterious. There may well be reasons to consider 2016 a terrible year, but thinking rationally, the number of celebrity deaths is not among them.

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.

What Just Happened?


Note well: I don’t talk about politics on Contra very much. When I do, I impose what I call heroic courtesy on myself. I suggest that you do the same in the comments. Furthermore, I demand civility. (This is not the same thing as courtesy, and not as good, but with some individuals it may have to do.) There will be no hate words like libtards, republithugs, deniers, or anything stupid of that sort that wasn’t even funny the first time. If you use playground logic like tu quoque, I will allow it, but I will call you on it. If you’re a purely emotional thinker who simply wants to vent, there are other, better places for that. Go find them.


I boggle. I was ready to admit that this was a disturbingly weird election, and beats the runnerup, 1872 (go look it up) hands-down. I took notes over the past six months and privately predicted a number of things, including a clear Clinton victory (if not a landslide) and either a tied Senate or Democrats by one or at best two seats. Didn’t happen, and what was disturbingly weird now takes its place as the weirdest single event that I have ever witnessed. So, indeed, what happened? I took some notes last night. Let me share them with you.

  • Hate loses. Yes, it does. I now understand the psychological purpose of online hate, though it took a few years to figure it out: In counseling circles it’s called journaling, which is a mechanism for the release of tension and frustration. Venting or griping are other common names for the process. People who have no way to journal often die young, like my grandfather Harry Duntemann. So it can be a useful, nay, lifesaving mechanism. However, it has to be done in private. Either do it with your likeminded friends over a few beers, or in the private online echo chamber of your choice. Just don’t do it where the larger world can see it. You will be silently tagged as a hater and marked down. You will persuade no one. In fact, a growing number of people look at online hate and say, This smells of fear. Fear implies a force worth understanding, and sometimes that understanding changes minds in a direction away from the fear behind the hate. By hating, you may be persuading others that your side is either a lost cause or bogus to begin with. Do you really want to do that?

    My analysis suggests that three words cost Hilary Clinton the Presidency: “basket of deplorables.” It’s one thing to use verbalized hate as a means of dissipating tribal fears and frustrations, directed at an opposition candidate. It’s quite another to explicitly express hate and (especially) contempt for millions of voters, right there in front of every TV camera in the nation. The right took the phrase and turned it into a badge of pride. “I’m deplorable and I’m OK. I sleep all night and I work all day.” Etc. Like nobody on the campaign could have seen that coming? I’ve never entirely understood this business of “energizing your base” by calling the other guys names. You already own your base. Why drive away people who might give you a hearing if you just. remained. civil? Why? Why? Why?

    There are admittedly other issues at play too complex to go into here, like Ms. Clinton’s alleged mishandling of classified information, or this general demonization of whites and the working class by the fringes of the progressive left. Ms. Clinton did not reach out to working-class whites. She bowed to her fringes by insulting and marginalizing them, and did not take up the issues that concern them. This was entirely avoidable. Her base would have voted for her anyway, apart from a handful of Jill Stein fans and Berniebros. (BTW, I was much impressed with the campaign of Jill Stein, and of the candidate herself. I offer her as an example to progressives trying to win future elections.)

  • The mainstream media lit a funeral pyre and jumped gleefully into the flames. The media has always leaned left; it leaned left when I was in college 45 years ago, and we all understood how journalism selects for a certain idealistic and largely emotional mindset. What happened this time is that the media abandoned all pretense of objectivity and went full-in for the Democrats. I knew about push-polling (publishing deliberately skewed polls to demoralize your opposition) but have never seen it mounted as broadly as it was. Worse, a lot of journalists let their inner haters leak out on social media, and whether they were merely venting or not, those who saw their posts took it as naked, hateful bias of the media as a whole. Never forget, anybody: What you say online reflects on your industry, whether you issue disclaimers or not. Better to just shut up and do your job.
  • Media analysts lost the ability to question their own assumptions. How could the pollsters get it all so wrong? I’m a journalist, and I learned from the best. Fortunately, it was not political journalism, so emotional thinking and tribalism didn’t really come into play. I learned the importance of checking facts, evaluating sources, and looking for different ways to come at any given topic. Most important, I was taught to leave my preconceptions at the door. In political journalism, preconceptions generally come in the form of tribal narratives, and questioning tribal narratives can have awful consequences for tribal operatives. So journalists and pollsters kept repeating their narrative-respecting explanations until those explanations became indistinguishable from reality. Then real reality intruded, and made them all look like incompetent goofs.
  • Alternate news sources are now ubiquitous, and mature. Nearly all of these are online, and even those supposedly stupid deplorables out in farm country now have broadband. So people did not have to rely on mainstream news sources that made no secret of their biases. The Wikileaks drama was surreal, especially FBI Director Comey’s flip-flop-flip on whether or not Ms. Clinton performed actions that broke the law. Other details that I have not yet verified (like whether Chelsea Clinton used Clinton Foundation funds to pay for her wedding) would not have been covered on mainstream outlets at all, but the alts put it up in lights. Ditto evidence of vote fraud in many places around the country. I’m a Chicago boy, and we saw it happening on a large scale fifty years ago and ever since. Denying that it happens is simply a lie; the big questions are where, how much, and how to stop it. Without the alt media, those questions would never have seen the light of day.
  • Nobody wants to be a lightning rod. The mainstream media and most people on the left have made their hatred of Mr. Trump clearly known ever since he turned up on the scene. If somebody like a pollster asks you whom you support, are you necessarily going to say the guy that everybody on the news clearly loathes? To some people, politics is like life itself. To many people (myself included) politics is a disease that robs people of their humanity and turns them into killer apes. Dealing with combative political people is not fun, so the best strategy is to avoid the topic entirely. This is the great magic of secret ballots: You can lie or make excuses when asked about your preferences, and then vote your private position in private, with no one the wiser, and nobody to roll their eyes and write you down. I always lie to pollsters because I hate the very idea of polling and want it to go away. Stick a pitchfork in polling; it’s done. Post-2016, polling will be seen as either worthless twaddle or backchannel campaigning. The delicious irony is that the pollsters did it to themselves, by forcing ordinary, non-political people to hide or mis-state their true but private positions on things.

That’s my note pile, scribbled after a long, bleary night reading and viewing election analysis and trying to cut through the blather and outright nonsense that passes for political insight these days. Take from it what you will. Note that none of this is to suggest an endorsement of any candidate, party, or position. I’m a contrarian, so I take pride in pushing back at the pushers, even if I have sympathy for the pushers. I do not like to be pushed. After almost twenty years of Contra, you all should understand that by now. Nor do I ever talk about the specifics of how I voted. It’s a secret ballot. Can you keep a secret?

I can.