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July, 2008:

Almost Done with Souls in Silicon

We got back from Wisconsin yesterday, having had a very good time getting soaking wet and eating perhaps a little too much. I had forgotten how pretty that part of the country was, even though my family went there often in the early 1960s. It was where my mother grew up, between the little whistle-stop of Shennington and the larger town of Necedah. (That's her at left, as Necedah High School's drum majorette in 1942, posing with her band teacher.) Carol and I explored the area a little bit while we still lived in Chicago, but that's been thirty years now, and it would be worthwhile to go back and hit Baraboo, Mauston, Mill Bluff State Park, and a number of other places we remember less well than we'd like. We want to return to Perot State Park along the Mississippi, where I proposed to Carol in 1975, as well as nearby Wyalusing. Next summer, fersure.

We're still in the Chicago area (currently in Crystal Lake) but this trip isn't entirely vacation, and I'm pushing hard to get some work done. Today was productive: I finished laying out and proofing the body of Souls in Silicon, the first of two collections I am preparing of my own SF. Souls in Silicon contains all of my published stories pertaining to strong AI, including “Guardian,” which was on the final Hugo ballot in 1981, and “Borovsky's Hollow Woman,” my 1983 collaboration with Nancy Kress, which originally appeared in Omni. Other stories in the 9-story lineup include “The Steel Sonnets,” “Silicon Psalm,” “Bathtub Mary,” “Marlowe,” “STORMY vs. the Tornadoes,” and “Sympathy on the Loss of One of Your Legs.” The collection will conclude with an excerpt from my 2005 novel, The Cunning Blood.

With the body done and the page count frozen, I can get to work on a cover. I commissioned custom cover art from Richard Bartrop, and just approved his final color concept sketch. By the time Richard is done, I should have a cover to drop the art into, and we'll have us a book. Richard is very well-known in Furry circles, but he's actually a formidable hard SF artist, and the concept, from my story “Guardian,” is terrific. Bodies are easy. Covers are hard. My mother was an artist, but I think she left her talents in Wisconsin; neither Gretchen nor I inherited them. I hope to have copies to show around at Worldcon in Denver this August, but that means I had better get to work.


We're at the Chula Vista Resort in the Wisconsin Dells for a short family vacation, and I think I've identified the first significant cultural contribution of the 21st century: the large-scale water park. I'm not talking about a pool with a single slide, or even two slides. I'm talking about a fifteen-acre indoor/outdoor complex with twelve separate water slides, some easily fifty feet high, with coils of people pipes that go outside the building and then come in again, some in several different loops. One slide even has a Men In Black 2 style “flusher” at the end. There is a sort of aquatic roller-coaster-in-a-garden-hose, and a short, simple flume that pretty much drops you vertically for about thirty feet. I looked around, and I boggled—but then I started having fun.

It's a species of fun that simply didn't exist when I was a kid. We were delirious to have a simple swimming pool or even a muddy lake to paddle around in. I think I frst saw a water slide when I was thirty-five. And I have never seen anything even remotely like this. There is constant motion (much of it from incalculable numbers of eight-year-olds) and water pouring, squirting, and spraying everywhere, in every direction at once. Buckets of many sizes, from a gallon or two up to a multihundred something the size of a hot tub, slowly fill while on pivots, and when the buckets fill, they tip over and dump their loads on anyone who happens to be below. There's a zero-depth baby pool, a one-foot deep toddler pool, a four-foot-deep activity pool for preteens, a hot tub for exhausted old guys, and a very interesting thing called a “lazy river,” which is a linear pool about two feet deep and eight wide, propelled into slow motion by angled jets in the walls. You grab an inner tube as one drifts by, and just lie on your back and follow the flow around the periphery of the complex. Carol very bravely tried every single water slide in the place, spurred on by our strapping twentysomething nephews and their svelte, althletic girlfriends. I did the bunny slides and the “croc walk,” which is a pool across which you go by hanging from a suspended net while stepping on floating faux alligator body sections. I myself was never one for thrill rides, and I deeply admire my beautiful wife for being wiling to shoot through pipes at thirty miles an hour.

One fascinating thing about our Fourth of July day at the water park was how international it all was. We had chairs next to a group of people speaking a Slavic language (Russian? I can't tell) and Carol's mom heard more than one group speaking Polish. A pair of guys were speaking French on the elevator with us, and I know enough German to identify it when I hear it. Lots of Spanish, and possibly Portuguese. Many Asian families were there, including one whom I suspect were Phillipinos speaking Tagalog. A group of young Black folks were in the hot tub with us for awhile, speaking a language that was like nothing I had ever heard. Clearly, the Wisconsin Dells is a global draw, which I found interesting, since when last I looked the Dells were kind of like Las Vegas without hookers. On the other hand, the last time I looked was in 1961, and the really big thrill was riding an Army-surplus amphibious truck on now-defunct Lake Delton. (The Delton vista was a little surreal: acres of mud, sand, and century-old tree stumps where Tommy Bartlett's skiers used to roam.) But it makes sense: The States is a cheap date these days, and all those good people from overseas were throwing cubic meters of money into the local economy.

We spent the evening at a local park, tossing a frisbee around while waiting for a pretty spectacular fireworks display. We saluted the birth of the American idea, which has seen better and worse over the years. We survived the Civil War. We survived the Depression. We will survive $5 gasoline.

The American idea is not over. It has not failed. It has not even fully matured. I'm not, in fact, sure that anyone entirely understands it—but I will celebrate it, for what has been and for what is yet to be, now and forever, amen.

Odd Lots

  • Text messaging has always struck me as more than faintly ridiculous: Spend a quarter to cramp your thumbs sending a handful of characters to another cell phone, when you could call that same cell phone and talk for a full minute for less. And even though texting costs phone carriers almost nothing, the cost of texting to consumers has more than doubled in the last three years.
  • I was at Barnes & Noble a little earlier today, prowling the history section as I often do. (The history section is now about the same size as the computer book section. This was not always the case…) I remembered something I had noticed many times in the past: B&N stocks an absolutely amazing number of books on the Knights Templars and Freemasonry. (By contrast, I counted three—three!—books on Ubuntu Linux.) The history section at Borders stocks almost nothing on these two topics. Do people actually buy this stuff? Or is there a Templars/Masonry fan club at the highest levels of B&N?
  • Xandros has purchased Linspire. Linspire tried their hardest to create an OEM market for desktop Linux, but annoyed FOSS purists by including commercial software in their CNR installation service, which was actually the only part of Lindows/Linspire that I really liked. Ubuntu has mostly swept the desktop Linux field, but I admit, they haven't gone after OEM installs as vigorously as Linspire did, nor as vigorously as they'd have to to get some traction against Windows. Ubuntu's parent Canonical is developing a mobile version that will be sold preinstalled on subnotebooks, but we're not quite there yet.
  • Mike Reith sent me an interesting little utility called IsDelphi, which will scan a directory, inspect any executables it finds, and report which ones were written in Delphi. The most interesting revelation: Skype is a Delphi app. I hadn't heard that.
  • In case you weren't already worried about whether you should take that trip down the hill to get a latte, I suggest a spin through Dark Roasted Blend's collection of weird car accidents. You Could Be There.
  • And in case you're not steamed out or punked out yet, head down to the closest Greek restaurant, order some calimari, and curl up with an anthology of squidpunk. Damitall, when are we gonna see glyptodontpunk? I'll show you escapist and whimsical…

Mainstreaming Sit-Down

I find much or most of the debate on the obesity explosion puzzling. Many major American cities are trying to pass laws severely limiting fast food outlets or banning them entirely, blaming them for our increasingly fat population. The sheer violence of the debate (cruise pertinent online discussions and you'll see what I mean) suggests that more is going on here than a discussion of nutrition, but I'll be damned if I can figure out just what, though I will speculate below.

As I've said here more than once, obesity, like most health issues, is more complex than most of us would like to admit. It's about calories but not only calories, and contrary to conventional wisdom, one calorie is like any other calorie…if you're a calorimeter. Sugar calories do different things in the body than fat calories, yet you wouldn't know this trying to get a grip on the problem online. The speed with which I dropped belly fat when I basically gave up sugar was startling. Sleep loss is also a factor, according to the Mayo Clinic. (Alas, the Mayo Clinic still believes in the BMI, which does not distinguish at all between fat and muscle. Ummm…and you guys are doctors?)

I've read a lot of speculation as to what kicked off the obesity epidemic in the midlate 80s. That's when high-fructose corn syrup went mainstream and drove cane sugar out of soft drinks. It was when our high-speed, high-stress always-on culture kicked into high gear and 60-hour weeks became a commonplace. It's when the overall inflation-adjusted price of food fell to historic lows. And it was also the time when something else happened: an explosion of low-end “sit-down” restaurants fielded by national franchises. You see them everywhere: Red Robin, Applebees, Black-Eyed Pea, TGI Friday's, and so on. They are legion. And if you're a true calorie believer, the caloric content of their dishes will take your breath away: One order of Outback's Aussie Cheese Fries appetizer contains 2,900 calories. Even expressed by weight, it is to boggle: A large Maggiano's pasta dish gets you over two pounds of noodles on a 15-inch plate.


The tirade against fast-food restaurants is peculiar in that it does not recognize that fast-food portions are generally smaller than those at sit-down restaurants, and more to the point, fast-food items are what old-time IT guys would call “unbundled”: You can get menu items separately if you want them. You can get a single small burger—or a Triple. You can get fries or no fries, and fries in sizes. On the much simpler sit-down restaurant menus, you must get the potatoes with the steak, and the portion size is always…lots. And anyone who says with a straight face that there's more fat in fast food than at casual dining sit-downs is either lying or doesn't get out much.

We didn't go to restaurants much when I was a kid, in part because back then, sit-down restaurants were higher-end, and expensive. We had to dress up on special occasions to go to Llandl's or the Kenilworth Inn in Lincolnwood. The notion of “casual dining” was still pretty uncommon, and probably considered a contradiction in terms by dining purists. (What there was fell into the separately interesting category of “greasy spoons.”) Since 1985 or so, sit-downs went mainstream on a huge scale, as corporate restaurant franchises gobbled up key slots at the corners of megamalls and major intersections. Your average American went from dining out a few times a year to a couple of times a week, with portion sizes that I still find boggling.

My point here is that crucifying fast food as though it were the sole cause of obesity (or even the major contributor) is magical thinking, and has more than a whiff of politics in it. (When reading things like Fast Food Nation I see union opportunism and attacks from the Vega System.) Nothing is ever that simple, and if we keep insisting that it is, no progress will ever be made. It's not about McDonald's. It's about genetics, metabolism, portion control, exercise, sugar, stress, and sleep—and probably fifteen other things, most of which we still haven't defined. Let us not pull the trigger with the wrong guy in our sites, just to be shooting something.