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November, 2010:

Memory and the Need to Explain

I’ve been writing my memoirs for a couple of years now, little bits here and little bits there as time allows. I don’t intend to publish them, though I may give them to people who request them. But having researched and meditated on the fluky nature of human memory, I want to record what I remember now, against the strong possibility that the remembering will not get any better.

One of my friends (who knows about my memoir-ing because she’s in my memoirs) asked me if it was a painful process. That’s a good question that I hadn’t considered; after all, I was trying to remember and record as much as I could, the bad along with the good. So was writing about the occasional tragedy in my life painful? Remarkably, no. In fact, the more I write about my life, the better I feel about it. I’ve always attributed this to the value of emotional release (especially of suppressed emotion) as documented by James W. Pennebaker in his book, Opening Up. But earlier today, while reading Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, I came across another possibility: That explaining personal tragedy, even in a purely intellectual way, feels good and is healing in and of itself. There is, however, a bit of intriguing weirdness in it: It appears to work even if your explanation is bogus.

The human mind seems to like a coherent narrative, and when coherence is in short supply will manufacture as much as it needs. This may be one reason that we discover faulty memories of our past, as I’ve documented here: We value continuity over accuracy, and abhor blank spots. So when we’re telling a remembered narrative and come across something we don’t remember or don’t understand, it’s very tempting to guess and then build the guess into the narrative. (This can be and I think often is an unconscious process.)

I noticed this process at work some months back, when I was writing an account of my early relationships. Girlfriends #2 and #3 very clearly and explicitly rejected me because of my eccentricity. (I married Girlfriend #4.) Weirdly, what happened with Girlfriend #1 I simply don’t recall. I remember when the end came (August 1968) and I remember being miserable about it. I just don’t have the slightest idea what the issue was.

When I wrote about it, my first draft was the honest one: “I no longer remember why Judy and I broke up.” I didn’t like admitting that, but further thought brought no new memories to light. I do remember arguing with her and being a jerk about it. I just don’t remember what we were arguing about.

So for my second draft, I added speculation: “I no longer remember precisely why Judy and I broke up, but considering my later experiences with girls, I’m pretty sure my eccentricity had begun to wear on her after ten months of being inseparable.” That sounded a lot better to me, even though there’s not a lick of memory to back it up.

It is, however, a much better story. It ties in with my later experience and clearer memories. It just isn’t true. (I will admit that it’s a reasonably good guess.) Alas, I think that if I told the story often enough, the fact that this was simply a guess would get lost, and the guess would melt into my personal history and absorb credibility from everything else I’ve written. I wonder now how much of this has already happened.

Bottom line: Our memories may not decay naturally. We may unconsciously corrupt them by trying to knit them together into a coherent narrative, inventing or reshaping facts where facts either don’t fit well or don’t exist. That done, we convince ourselves that our guesses are true, at least until we encounter independent evidence that they’re not.

I don’t think it’s an honesty issue. If it were, you’d think it would feel better to just admit ignorance than tell a tall tale, especially when the tall tale puts the teller in a bad light. To the contrary, I think that devising narratives is a basic human need, and even when we don’t have to, some of us do it anyway, simply because it feels good. (This is how novels happen.)

Memoirists: Admit your ignorance. Label guesses honestly. The better a story your memoirs tell, the less likely it is that they really happened. (I’ll do my best to take my own advice here. Corrections gracefully accepted.)

Smoking Jackets


Apropos of nothing in particular (other than that it came to hand unexpectedly a few weeks ago) I present a caricature of me by Chris Cloutier, a very talented artist/cartoonist who was a friend of mine in the 80s, during the peak of my involvement with the SF fan organization General Technics. The cartoon did me a service, because I thought I grew that slightly ridiculous foliage in 1983, but from the date it looks like I already had it in 1981.

I have never entirely understood smoking jackets, which are fragile, thin, very expensive silk robes used to keep your tobacco ashes from damaging or soiling whatever you had on underneath. As a lifetime nonsmoker I’ve never had that problem, admitting that I have burned holes in my polyester shirts by dropping molten solder gobs or occasionally red-hot lathe chips on them. I therefore wear a sort of retro-techie smoking jacket downstairs in my shop: It’s a dark gray plaid mackinaw, and its job is to keep my other clothes from smoking. Works good, too.

Odd Lots

  • Maxwell’s Demon as Web comic. (Thanks to GMcDavid for the pointer.)
  • Here’s a tutorial on adding a MicroSDHC card to the Nook ebook reader. Looks like a mechanically touchy business (be careful!) and nothing substantive is said about sideloading content on the inserted card. Sideloading of content is something I’m less and less willing to compromise on, as I do not want a censor between my slate and material that I want to read.
  • I’m due-ing diligence on the very impressive, Android-powered Nook Color, but the frontrunner in the Great Jeff Slate Project continues to be the Galaxy Tab, especially since Samsung is offering this keyboard dock. That said, Nook Color is the right idea for ebook freaks: Approach a general-purpose slate from the ebook side, starting with a killer ebook store and working toward everything else. (Supposedly, V2.2 and access to the Android app store is coming soon.) My view: Dedicated e-readers like Sony’s and even Kindle will eventually give way to more general-purpose slates of similar size, though slates may “lean” toward one enthusiasm (like ebooks) or another.
  • Back in 1983 and 1984, I did about 10,000 words on a since-abandoned novel that included a species of road surface that charged your car’s batteries as the car moves over the road. A pickup called the “board” (after surfboard) was suspended beneath a vehicle and hovered over the road surface via maglev to generate current like a linear alternator. I was pleased to see that Wired posted a news item on some guys in New Zealand who are developing almost precisely that. Not sure how well the math works out (especially with respect to infrastructure costs) but it’s a cool idea. I added another small touch: Ohmic losses in the “voltway” surface kept it snow-free in winter.
  • Pope John Paul II was an idealist. Pope Benedict XVI is a pragmatist. My SF prediction: As he grows older and sees the problems besetting the Church getting no better and possibly worse, he will begin considering other reforms that his uncompromising predecessor would have considered impossible. Hey, Bennie! How ’bout Vatican 3!
  • People who have lots of moles have longer telomeres. Or at least look younger than they are. Carol and I are both so blessed, mole-wise, but I think it worked better on her than on me.
  • If you spend a lot of time in the car but off the Interstates, take a spin through RoadsideAmerica, a bemused compendium of eccentric stuff you can see on road trips. I liked the entry on smiley-faced water towers, since we pass one in Adair, Iowa every time we blast back and forth to Chicago. And Adair is far from the only one.
  • From the above site: When we left Arizona seven years ago, some people nodded and said, Cool! Colorado isn’t as crazy as Arizona. Well…I’m not sure that’s true.

Kiddie Phonographs, the Speed Lever, and the Nutty Squirrels

My sister complained a year or two ago that most of Katie’s and Julie’s toys talk. Some talk and sing songs, though a few–I remember a circus train that was one of Katie’s first toys–actually play classical music. When most of your day is spent in the company of toddlers and their toys, I’m guessing silence is in short supply, because when the toddlers aren’t make noise themselves, their toys pick up the slack.

Which brings me back to 1957. My parents had a record player, though it was old and cranky and built into a piece of furniture. I’m sure they didn’t want me messing with it, so they bought a small, portable kiddie phonograph of my own. I had a few kid records, some that told stories, some that played songs, and some–like the Maury Bunin Puppets’ “Foodini’s Trip to the Moon” that did both. (Alas, none that I recall played classical music.) I enjoyed the phonograph a lot, and given that the single active component was a 117L7 tube (capable of 0.85 watts into a 4,000 ohm load) it didn’t generate enough volume to bother my folks much–until I discovered the speed lever.

foodinimoon325wide.jpgLike most record players in that era, it could do 33 1/3, 45, and 78 RPM. Most of my records were 45s. (The older ones, including Foodini, were 78s.) Playing a 45 at 33 1/3 was interesting for a moment but ultimately boring: Small children run at inherently higher clock rates than adults, and slow music is not a big draw. 78, now: I had a Disney extended-play 45 containing music from the 1955 “Lady and the Tramp” and I loved it a lot. One cut in particular was my favorite: “Lady,” the instrumental theme for the female cocker spaniel lead. It was bouncy (like me) and I quickly learned how to pick up the needle and drop it again at the beginning of the track, playing it again and again. And when that got boring, I nudged the speed lever up to 78.

Nirvana! I still remember the sped-up recording clearly, and I think it may well beat Khachaturian’s “Saber Dance” as the most manic single piece of music in my experience. I got bored with the item before my parents could sell me to the gypsies (maybe–I wonder if the 45 simply disappeared one day) but I continued my experiments with the speed lever.

We had the 45 of David Seville’s “The Chipmunk Song” (1958) and when I cranked the lever down to 33 1/3, I realized to my six-year-old astonishment that it wasn’t chipmunks at all, but ordinary guys singing the song reeeeeeeeeeeal slow. My cousin Diane had another similar 45, of The Nutty Squirrels doing a scat song called “Uh-Oh.” Same deal: Dial down the speed and it was just a couple of guys singing slower than I could imagine–or tolerate.

NuttySquirrels.jpgThis was a fad in the late 1950s, starting with Sheb Woolley’s “Purple People Eater,” which had a couple of sped-up spoken vocals (“I wanna get a job in a rock and roll band…”) but no sped-up singing. That was a Seville invention, with his 1958 song “Witch Doctor,” setting the stage for The Chipmunks at Christmas time that year.

The Nutty Squirrels (basically, jazz musicians Don Elliot and Sascha Burland) had their own TV cartoon show, which came out about the same time as Rocky and Bullwinkle but was not as brilliantly silly and by now is mostly forgotten. Their music was better, and not as kid-centric as the Chipmunks always were, which I’m sure doomed them.

I’ve often wondered how one learns to scat-sing at half-speed without muffing the tempo for the sped-up version. Of all the peculiar and now-forgotten human skills that you might name, that may be the most peculiar of all.

Odd Lots

EBooks, Foreign Rights, and Reluctant Pirates

Alana Joli Abbott reminded me that I hadn’t read Rose Fox in awhile, so I spent an hour yesterday catching up at the Publishers Weekly Genreville blog. Highly recommended. This post from last week was important because people higher in the publishing food chain than I have begun to admit that the foreign rights business model is already doing and could do hugely more damage to the ebook business.

An awful lot of people think that the Internet, being global, is truly a global marketplace. The sad truth is that if you’re in Australia, you may not be able to buy an ebook offered from England, or the US, or along many other vectors that cross a border. People in France often cannot buy English translations of French works, and in fact the world is carved up into regional and language ghettos that ebooks cannot legally leave. I’m not making this up, nor exaggerating: See Lost Book Sales for more examples than you could want.

The problem is an ancient carryover from the print book business, where publication rights to a book are brokered by language and often by nation. This used to be necessary to get international distribution at all, since gladhanding and then coddling multiple retailers on the other side of the planet is an expensive business that most publishers (especially small ones) simply can’t do. Applying the international rights/publishing/distribution model to ebooks is idiotic, since any IP address can connect with any other IP address and there is no physical inventory to manage, move, or return.

It’s easy to blame authors (which publishers are glad to do) for shouting “Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!” about international rights, amidst fever dreams of making a fortune brokering Urdu translations of their books to the Pakistani equivalent of Macmillan–assuming that there is a Pakistani equivalent of Macmillan. In truth, midlist foreign rights sales don’t make a huge amount of money for publishers, and very little money at all for authors. (I’ve been both an author and a publisher and have worked both sides of that street.) It’s probably something like a 97/3 rule: A tiny handful of authors and books make a fortune on foreign rights, and everybody else gets peanuts, or just empty (contractual) shells.

Authors don’t help by vastly overestimating the commercial potential of their work, but the reality is this: Foreign rights sales are an easy and reliable (if minor) revenue stream for publishers, and the publishers will not give them up without a fight. There’s a lot of rentseeking involved and a lot of ego on the line. National governments generally support foreign rights agreements because local activity generates local tax revenue, whereas an EPub file flying over a national border generates nothing.

And so we have the absurdity of purchasers, money in hand, pleading in vain with retailers to sell them the product. The publishing industry is in deep denial about what comes next: The spurned buyers run over to RapidShare or Usenet and simply download the product for free. Online content is basically sold on the honor system, and if the author/publisher/retailer side of things doesn’t appear to be serious about being a business, why should readers be serious about being paying customers? I’ve often wondered whether a thwarted purchaser who figures out how to download ebooks from Usenet (it’s not trivial) will ever rejoin the legal marketplace at all.

The solution is simple, if not easy: One ebook, one world, one market. How we get there is unclear. Authors may need to get tough with publishers in peculiar and counterintuitive ways: “Take these global rights or I’ll throw them at you!”

Or maybe authors just need to take over the publishing industry. No, this doesn’t mean self-publishing. (If only it were that easy.)

More as time allows.

The MacSlow Cairo Clock Black Border Problem

CairoClockProblem.pngI’m slowly coming out from under something very like bronchitis, but I wanted to get this item posted because I see nothing about it online: When Mac Slow’s excellent Cairo Clock is installed under Ubuntu with all the desktop defaults, it does not overlay itself on the background correctly. (See screen shot at left.) This was initially a head scratcher for me, because the very same version of Cairo Clock (0.3.4) works perfectly under Ubuntu 10.4.

What I didn’t realize is that in the process of tweaking Lucid Lynx this spring (before I installed Cairo Clock) I changed the Visual Effects option from None to Normal. The clock requires something in the GNOME desktop visual effects mechanism, and when I changed Visual Effects to Normal instead of None, it worked as expected, clipping to the clock face with a nice transparent drop shadow.

The option is in the System | Preferences | Appearance dialog, under the Visual Effects tab.

Nothing more than that, and not a big deal. I’m posting it in case some other Ubuntu noob has the same problem and can’t figure it out. If I can save some poor guy an hour and some hair this easily, I will.


We had a little snow last night, which hit the ground, melted on the pavement, and then refroze to black ice before the morning. So I was out there right after breakfast, throwing some pet-friendly melt compound on the front sidewalk. The housecleaners are coming this morning, and that stretch of concrete can’t be a skating rink when they arrive.

So there I am, tossing capfuls of white granules around, when who trots nonchalantly up to me but our anomalously friendly neighborhood fox. Mr. Fox (and yes, it could be a female. Forgive me for not trying to do the test) stood in front of me like a dog at an obedience trial, looking up at me, full eye contact. He was on the opposite side of the front walk, no more than four feet away.

Four feet. This was as close as I’ve ever come to a wild animal that large, and probably twenty feet closer than I’ve ever been to a fox. He held eye contact for a few seconds, then looked at the cap I held in my left hand. (The melt compound comes in a white plastic jug exactly like the large size of laundry detergent.) He looked at the cap, then looked at me, then looked at the cap. And then, egad, he picked up his right front paw.

Hey! I know that drill! This is what Carol and I call the QRU gesture. QBit is especially good at it. If I’m eating a banana he will look at the banana, then look at me, then look at the banana, then look at me, and repeat until I give him some. In many cases, he will pick up one paw for emphasis.

QRU, as many readers here will know, is the ham radio Q-code for “Do you have anything for me?” (when followed by a question mark) or “I have nothing for you” when stated without a question mark. In ham radio, this refers to message traffic. However, in this house, it generally refers to banana, rice cakes, or something like that. I’m a soft touch and generally give QBit what he wants, but there are some things that invariably give him the runs, so instead of handing him a piece of lox I’ll just say, “QRU!”

Understanding happened when I looked at what I held in my hand: A detergent bottle cap made of white plastic, perhaps a little bigger than an extra-large…egg.

Well. As I’ve mentioned here before, somebody on the next block is giving raw eggs to the local fox, not just occasionally but on a daily basis. And I can just see Mr. Fox standing on the cultprit’s back patio, looking longingly through the sliding glass doors until Mrs. Clueless exclaims, “Harry! The fox is back! The poor thing must be hungry!” And then Mrs. Clueless goes to the fridge, pulls out an egg, opens the patio door, and lays it on the patio. Mr. Fox scoops it up and heads off to wherever fox spend their time around here.

This has been going on for a couple of years. We now have a partly Belyaevized fox running around, scamming the neighbors for a living and getting a little too cozy with the rest of us. Interestingly, when I put the cap back on the melt compound bottle it no longer looked like an egg, so the fox lost interest in me, continuing on past the house down into the gully.

I’d prefer it not happen, but better the local fox begging at our feet than the skunks or the bears. And I think I need to keep a camera in my pocket even when I’m only going twenty feet from the front door.

Tripwander: The Board Into Summer

We got back here to Colorado from Chicago just in time for the first snows. And while it snows like hell outside my window, I sit here in an interior fog, recuperating from a typical post-Chicago-trip headcold. I’m starting to climb out of it, but if you haven’t heard from me lately that’s mostly why.

The trip itself was short as such trips go, and was mostly concerned with getting Carol’s mom moved back home from the nursing facility where she’d been for some time. We also spent four days babysitting our nieces Katie and Julie while their parents took a much-needed break from parenting to attend the Ohio Valley Filk Fest in Columbus.

Tending small children is aerobic, to say the least. We ran around the back yard with them and the dogs, took them to several parks and playgrounds, and (finally) got a kite into the air in the big field behind their house. The kite was a nondescript 20″ ripstop Nylon diamond item from Wal-Mart, and it flew beautifully without any tail at all, thanks to a relatively light and steady wind. Katie (who is not quite four) flew it carefully and well, though whether she listened to my uncle-ish lectures on staying away from the power lines is unclear.


Carol and the girls blew soap bubbles and chased them, assisted by Dash. QBit watched dourly from the sidelines after he touched a biggish bubble with his nose and popped it all over his face. We retrieved any number of things (including Julie’s Hello Kitty boots) from The Window Well Where Balls Go To Die. Kick a ball around the yard long enough and it will end up there, though how the boots got in remains a mystery:

“Julie, did you drop your boots in the window well?”



Well. I guess that’s that.

Of all the Pack, Dash clearly had the most fun. We deliberately had the neighbor girl come by regularly to play with Dash and his littermates when we first had them (and their mother) so that they would know what kids are and enjoy their company. And wherever there were kids, that was where Dash wanted to be. We watched him watching through the slats in the back fence while a group of local gradeschoolers played touch football in the field. His tail was wagging so hard I thought his butt would fall off. A few minutes later, I heard Dash’s distinctive yaps from a distance, and realized that he was out in the field with the kids, having somehow finessed the fence. When I went out the gate to fetch him I saw how he did it: There was a loose slat that wasn’t fastened to the bottom horizontal board, and he had just shoved it aside and pushed through the gap.

Fixing the fence was easy enough. The nails were still in the board, and I whacked them back into place with a handy half of a brick. We then watched Dash go back and forth along the fence for the rest of the afternoon, stopping at each slat and nudging it sidewise with his nose, clearly searching for The Board Into Summer.

We watched a lot of what passes for kid TV these days, including Phineas and Ferb (brilliant) Dora the Explorer (craftsmanlike) Wonder Pets (eh) and Fish Hooks (ghastly.) The cartoons provided a clue to an otherwise puzzling occurrance: We ordered in supper one evening from Mr. Beef and Pizza, including a styro container of chicken noodle soup. Julie grabbed the soup container and handed it to Gretchen, exclaiming loudly: “Arbor Day! Arbor Day!”

Arbor Day? I was puzzled until Katie followed up with “Por favor!” Ahh. Abrade! Open it! This was one of a number of Spanish words used in Dora the Explorer, which may be the girls’ current favorite cartoon. (Gretchen made Dora and Boots costumes for the girls for Halloween, though Julie refused to wear her Boots tail.)

On the last day we babysat, I came down a little oddly on my left leg running around on Gretchen’s uneven hillside, and, once I stopped writhing in pain, had to go to urgent care for an X-ray. Nothing was broken, but my knee swelled up something wonderful, and I was on a crutch for two days and visibly limping for the rest of the trip. Anaprox helped.

So we’re back, and I can now confront the huge wobbling pile of things I need to catch up on, making sure that all of the detonators go off. If one misses, well, the rest of the block will be toast.

Odd Lots