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November, 2012:

Explicit. Expliciat. Ludere Scriptor Eat!

This morning, almost three months late, I found myself writing the last words on the first draft of my novel Ten Gentle Opportunities. The final line (not counting the epilog, which I wrote months ago) is “Let’s talk.”

So let’s.

Back in 1980, as part of my programming job with Xerox, I was given a tour of the assembly line for the new model copier that my software system was tracking. It was a fascinating business. There was some automation but not a lot. Copiers-in-progress moved along a line, and people bolted/connected things to them, just like Model T Fords. Forklifts and electric carts were running around, carrying pallet loads of parts and subassemblies and lots of other stuff I couldn’t identify. At the end of the line there were ranks of completed model 3300 copiers, waiting to be tested and then plastic-wrapped for shipment. The building holding the assembly line was ginormous, and the interior space was fifty feet high or more.

Given the space it was in, the line seemed awfully, well, two-dimensional.

I’m not sure when I got the idea, exactly, but if the assembly lines of the future are going to be completely robotic, with few or (ideally) no humans standing around while the line is running, why carry parts around on carts? If you can make robot hands good enough to bolt copiers together, you can make robot hands good enough to pitch and catch. Sure, a baseball is an optimal case, but with enough compute power, you should be able to throw a circuit board, a subassembly, or a whole copier from one point to any other point on the floor. Damn, I thought, there’s a story in that somewhere.

The next year, I wrote it. The story was called “Paradise Lased.” It was about such an assembly line, controlled by an experimental AI called Simple Simon. In the story, the copiers have AI too, and one of them comes back for warranty repair with a truly peculiar problem: The copier thinks it’s God. In a corner of the factory, the control head is pulled off the copier so that the rest of the machine can be refurbed and resold. Through a high-speed wireless network, the delusional control head worms its way into the consciousness of the many dimwitted robots in the factory, demanding that they worship it. Simple Simon, being smarter than the robots, refuses. God the Copier declares war.

I finished the story, but never tried to sell it. Even as young and green as I was (29) I knew it was thin gruel. Mostly it was an excuse to imagine an entire robotic manufacturing ecology, and make a little fun of what I considered the extravagantly optimistic AI predictions bouncing around Xerox (and many other places) at that time. There was a human character in the story (one!) but he was just a walking point of view. The story was really about Simple Simon the AI. I was so enchanted by robots throwing capacitor joule grenades and eventually whole copiers at each other that I gave the human character almost nothing to do but run away from the robots and listen to Simple Simon complain. I tossed it into the trunk with an interior vow to do something better with it someday, ideally before it came to pass.

It took two more tries and 31 years, but I did it.

More tomorrow.

By the way, the Latin title to this entry is not my own; I can only dream of knowing Latin that well. It comes from Michael Covington, who offered it when I announced on Facebook this morning that the first draft was finished. Translation:

“It ends. Well does it end. Let the scribe go play!”


The 50-State Distributed Mosh Pit

Black Friday is almost over. I haven’t been out of the house at all today, as crisp and gorgeous a day as it’s been. Given how much I dislike crowds, I’m surprised I didn’t spend all day in the upstairs closet.

Multitudes obviously feel otherwise. News at 11.

Today’s Wall Street Journal ran a short piece that pretty much nailed it for me: Black Friday “Doorbusters” Don’t Always Hold Up. The money quote:

An analysis by pricing research firm Decide Inc. and The Wall Street Journal of this year’s most-touted Black Friday deals found that many of the bargains advertised as “doorbusters” were available at lower prices at other times of the year-sometimes even at the same retailer.

So people were camping out on the sidewalk since the last turkey-gasp yesterday–and sometimes earlier–for nothing.

Nothing? Maybe not. Carol and I have a theory: Black Friday has become a species of entertainment. It’s not about getting a deal. It’s about the crowds, the rush, the experience. As my business partner Keith Weiskamp said way back in 1994: “The critical app of the Internet is other people.”

Bingo. The whole point of Black Friday is to do the Shop Dance in public, even if you don’t bring anything home at all. It’s like a rock concert with a 50-state distributed mosh pit and so many people screaming that you can’t hear the music. Music? You mean there’s music? Hey man, feel the energy!

Yes, retailers are feeling the energy. They’ve fired up their spreadsheets and they’re hard at work trying to see if anybody’s actually paying attention to the price tags. Increasingly, they’re not. Hard stats indicate that the best prices for jewelry and watches happen in October, and for big-screen TVs at the beginning of the year. The point is to perpetuate the meme, raise prices a little each year, and keep people dancing.

Now, commerce is what makes jobs happen, and jobs are good. Money seems to work best when it moves quickly. So far be it from me to object. (Black Friday is the best day of the year for plumbers, by the way, but not for the reason that first crosses your mind.) If national flash crowds are hip and you’re a hipster, go for it. If you’re of my general temperament, a better strategy is to read a book–or maybe write one. (NaNoWriMo is still at its fevered peak.) I start my Christmas shopping this Monday, from right here in my chair, with an egg nog at my elbow and a quad core at my command. Some goods have to be handled to facilitate reasonable decision-making, and I’m budgeting time for that too, ideally when everybody else is at home reading a book. When?

I’d tell you. But I’d be lying.

Odd Lots, Thanksgiving Edition

  • Some brilliant if loopy stuff came out of the 70s, and one of the most brilliant is the episode of WKRP in Cinncinnati where they shoved live turkeys out of a helicopter and were surprised when the turkeys soon hit terminal velocity and went splat. (No turkeys were harmed–nor even shown–in that episode.) Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.
  • There are in fact turkeys that fly. Carol and I bought a heritage turkey of the sort that can and probably did fly, if not very far nor fast. Although it’s still thawing as I write this, the theory is that the meat will be darker and juicier coming from muscles that are actually used in the bird’s daily life. We’ll know soon.
  • I often eat eggs two meals a day, and don’t quail at eating eggs at all three meals. Which made me wonder if you could get turkey eggs somewhere, and what they’re like. They’re a little bigger (about 25%) and considerably pointier–and almost unavailable. Why? They’re lots more valuable as turkeys than as eggs. As so often, Cecil Adams has the last word.
  • Leave it to The Wall Street Journal to highlight a conflict I would not have imagined on my own: the issue of putting Marshmallow Fluff in the sweet potatoes. People have evidently come to blows over this.
  • I was astonished to learn (from the above article) that Marshmallow Fluff has existed since 1920. I’ve tasted it exactly once (as best I remember) when my poor mother attempted to use it in gingerbread house roof frosting circa 1960. The frosting softened the hard gingerbread slabs and the roof caved in.
  • The obvious question to arise after you cease boggling over putting Marshmallow Fluff in the sweet potatoes: Is there a marshmallow-flavored liqueur? Yup. Smirnoff has it. And a bald woman in their product advertising, egad. Like a marshmallow, get it?
  • If that doesn’t seem odd, well, consider other weird cordials from around the world, including cannabis liqueur, smoked salmon flavored vodka, and (yukkh!) baby mice wine.
  • No, I didn’t find a turkey-flavored liqueur. However–and I am not making this up–Jones Soda sells (among other things, including Green Bean Casserole soda) Turkey & Gravy soda. How does it taste? Do not fail to read the description in the article.
  • I failed to find turkey-flavored vodka, but I did run across a recipe for 100-proof vodka-flavored turkey. Hic.
  • We’re long past Marshmallow Peeps season, but here’s an entrepreneurial idea: sell pre-staled Peeps. It takes a year or so to get them stale enough to pass muster with aficionados, but I have it on good authority that they don’t get moldy. Don’t ask why; you don’t want to know. Twinkies were not outliers in this regard.
  • As for Thanksgiving itself, the holiday and the state of mind, I will simply refer you to what I said in 2008. It’s all still true–and since then Jackie has lost a good deal of weight and become ours. Be thankful. Live mindfully. Appreciate those you love and who love you. And thanks to everybody who takes a detour out of their busy online lives to read me here!

Spam Supposedly from Facebook Friends

As mysteries go this was small change, but I stumbled across its solution earlier today: spam nominally from Facebook friends. I’ve been getting a recognizable species of link spam every day or two for a couple of months now. The From: field always contains the name of someone I know. The From: email address, however, is unknown to me and does not belong to the person named. The Subject: field is short and nondescript, like “Hello”. The body of message is brief and follows this form:

super http://spammityspam.spam/goosebrow/53zappovat/

11/21/2012 10:33:27 AM

The From: email address is always a gobbledegook address from a big email service like Hotmail or AOL. There may be two or three words before the link, but no more than that. The link destination is different every time. I don’t know, don’t care, and don’t intend to find out what’s at the other end of the links.

I first assumed that someone I knew had gotten his or her address book hijacked by a trojan, which has long been a common practice when a machine is hacked. The interesting thing was that many of the people didn’t know one another at all. (I asked a few of them.) My next thought was that my own address book had been hijacked, except that two other people (out of eight or nine spams that I had tucked away to examine) were folks for whom I did not have and never had an email address. It took awhile for me to realize that the only common element was their presence in my Facebook friends list.


I sniffed around and found a nice description of the problem on CNET. In short, there was a Facebook vulnerability that allowed a scraper to lift the names (but not the email addresses, nor any private information) from my facebook friends list. Facebook has fixed the vulnerability, or claims to have fixed it. Facebook being Facebook, however, I’m sure there are plenty of others down there in the morass.

Given that over half of the posts in a recent sample of my friends feed today were idiotic or hate-filled images (many images consisting solely of words, which is idiocy cubed, and sometimes words too small to read, which is idiocy to the seventeenth power) I wonder sometimes why I bother.

Odd Lots

Mile High High

Last week, when nobody was looking, Colorado legalized marijuana. There’s some paper-pushing to be done, but at some point marijuana will be sold to those over 21 under much the same sort of regulatory mechanism as alcohol. The referendum got surprisingly little press, even here at home, and doubly even here in Colorado Springs, where Certain People just can’t shake the suspicion that somebody, somewhere, is having too much of a good time. I’ve been getting email from a few of my friends who have been (or maybe still are) users, asking me how we pulled it off.

It’s called democracy. People in Colorado got sick of a certain kind of intrusive government, and they kicked government’s ass. This is what initiative systems are for. As best I can tell it wasn’t that hard, for reasons I’ll relate shortly.

There was a Kliban cartoon in the January 1972 Playboy (this link is the best I could find) that simply nails the absurd position that marijuana has held in the national neurosis since the 1920s. In case you can’t see it well, the cartoon depicts a cop hauling a guy into the police station wearing a costume that looks remarkably like a certain illegal plant. The caption, spoken by the police chief: “I admire your initiative, Flynn, but we can’t arrest them for impersonating marijuana.”

For most of a century, we have allowed ourselves to be so terrified of a weed that even the idea of looking like marijuana gets our cortisol coursing. Carol bought a houseplant decades ago called a false aralia. The first time I saw it, a chill ran down my spine. (I had never seen the real thing except in books.) If it weren’t for the boggling amount of money wasted and the number of young lives ruined, the whole business would be sitcom fodder. It’s all now coming apart.

Here’s my analysis of why it happened:

  • Colorado has an excellent initiative system, which has largely been used to limit the power of government. Lots of silly initiatives get on the ballot. Almost none of them pass. The ones that do are generally worthwhile.
  • Colorado has had a legal medical marijuana system since 2000. The world didn’t end. Wild-eyed stoners weren’t enacting Reefer Madness in the streets. Nothing happened.
  • Although the chemical machinery of marijuana is poorly understood, it does seem to work in certain cases, especially for suppressing nausea in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Politicians who campaigned against MMJ back in 1999 were positioned as championing the suffering of dying people. Instant third rail.
  • The cumulative effect of our war on drugs is making even very conservative people question whether the benefits gained are worth the collateral damage. I know a number of Republicans who were very much for the initiative, though they denied being users. The issue did not fold along the usual dotted lines.
  • I was told by a psychiatrist I know that the hazards of marijuana are hugely overstated. I’ve read in several places that most of the pathology that we see in marijuana users has other unrelated causes. I know people who have been regular users since the early 1970s, and they’re all articulate, successful individuals. This used to be a contrarian point of view. No more.
  • That same psychiatrist told me that Obama instructed the DEA to back off individual users after he took office in 2008. I’m sure there are conservative marijuana users somewhere. I’m just as sure I’ve never met one. The Democratic base is full of them. Obama wanted to carry Colorado, and he did.

That’s “how we pulled it off.” Here, at the risk of getting screamed at by my conservative readership, is why I think it’s a good thing:

  • Legal marijuana means better, cleaner, and more predictable marijuana. One of my user friends out east says he envies the quality of the weed sold here and in California. What he gets in the alley is often dirty, contaminated with mold, and sometimes adulterated with other plant material.
  • Legal marijuana means that research into the uses of THC and the host of other active compounds in marijuana is more likely to happen. Research is now almost impossible, so what we know falls pretty much in the category of folk medicine. Knowledge is Good. Always.
  • Prohibition drives up prices, and money powers criminal activity. Cheaper marijuana probably means less money going to drug gangs here and in Latin America.
  • Local cultivation also means less involvement of foreign drug gangs.
  • Money and manpower spent suppressing marijuana is money and manpower not spent suppressing other, far more dangerous drugs. Meth is deadly, and it is not on my friends list.
  • There is a nontrivial amount of money to be had in taxes on legal marijuana. Yes, it’s a tax I myself won’t have to pay. I like that kind of tax.
  • There is a nontrivial amount of labor required to cultivate marijuana and create “downstream” products like edibles and tinctures. I’d rather those jobs be here than somewhere else.

None of this is original with me, but it’s the position I’ve come to after much thought and a fair bit of research. (Most recent piece of which: Super Charged by Jim Rendon. Decent, but not worth hardcover prices. Wait for the paperback or watch for it used.)

So. Given that even possessing marijuana remains a federal crime, will anything come of it? Invading Colorado with hundreds of door-kicking DEA thugs could turn Colorado red next election. Don’t wait up for it. The Feds will make a great deal of noise, but the same thing will happen as happened in 2000, when Colorado approved medical marijuana: nothing.

I think we’re approaching a sort of tipping point: The more states that legalize marijuana without dogs and cats living together, the sillier that all the sound and fury over marijuana becomes. Sooner or later the Feds will quietly fold, and even the Republicans will vote to repeal marijuana prohibition. As goes the US goes the rest of the Western world. It won’t be next year or the year after, but I still hold that it’s science fiction, not fantasy. Moreover, it’s dull science fiction. (Rather like Bowl of Heaven…but I get ahead of myself.)

One Big Band-Aid

Where have I been? Healing. No, I didn’t break anything. (I did floss one of my crowns right out of my mouth last Saturday night. Note to self: Popcorn hulls don’t hide very hard. Back off on the shear force a little.) What I did is watch a number of people I’ve known for some time, including a few that I nontrivially care about, soil themselves hurling hatred at entire groups of people they’ve never met and pretty clearly know nothing about. It almost made me quit Facebook for awhile, though it’s a little unclear how one actually goes about quitting Facebook. (The account of a woman I knew in college is still there even though she died two years ago.)

Reading that stuff hurts. Am I nuts? Maybe. I value friendship, for one thing, and for another, tribal hatred is the first step toward genocide. Giggle if you want. Years of research into tribalism, psychology, history, and our killer ape origins suggests that it’s true. I would write more about it except that knowingly hurling yourself into depression is pretty much as dumb as it gets.

Furthermore, it stopped Ten Gentle Opportunities dead in its tracks, at least for the time being. Am I annoyed? You have no idea.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time in my big chair, reading things that have nothing to do with elections as a way of putting a sort of giant band-aid on my soul. It’s been a mixed bag. Some quick notes:

  • Train Wrecks by Robert C. Reed. (Superior Publishing Company, 1968.) If you need steampunk mayhem in a big way, find this on the used book sites. Virtually every way that locomotives and rolling stock can die are well-represented, including a few that you’ve probably never heard about. This might even be depressing if I didn’t like trains (and steam power) as much as I do. (It also made me damned glad I live in 2012 and travel in a Toyota.)
  • Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild by Lee Sandlin. (Pantheon Books, 2010.) Still working on it, but what we have here is a collection of colorful anecdotes about the Mississippi from 1800-1863, when it was dredged for reliable river commerce. Pirates, floods, storms, and the New Madrid earthquake. I paid a buck online. Worth ten times that. (Maybe not twenty.)
  • Marry Him! by Lori Gottlieb. (Dutton, 2010.) Meh. Short, breezy read extending (a little) what I read in an article in The Atlantic some years back. Got it cheap in the B&N bargain bin, which suggests that it bombed. No surprise, given that the author is basically shouting “Attention princesses! We are currently experiencing a severe prince shortage. Please select an archduke or viscount while they are still available. Thank you.”
  • Electric Radio Magazine. Jack Smith K8ZOA sent me twelve years of this stunning little monthly, from 2000-2012, and I’ve been savoring them in my loose moments for several weeks. The focus is vintage ham radio gear, especially AM phone, which I would be doing more of if there were people close by to do it with. I still have a working Sixer, Twoer, 99er, and a G28, plus a couple of other things on the shelf that need work.

Carol and I spent some time in Chicago. Our niece Katie turns six next week and we bought her what my sister described as “an RC helicopter in a hamster ball.” It’s an Air Hog Heli-Cage, which has a pair of thin plastic hoops around it, like an equator and a prime meridian, which keep crashes from becoming too serious. Needless to say, in the hands of a not-quite-six pilot, the bands earned their keep. It was amazing how quickly both girls learned to fly it, including Julie, who’s only four. My brother-in-law Bill is even better, and landed the gadget on one of the blades of his livingroom ceiling fan. Wow.

Now, RC helicopters are fairly easy to describe. Not everything is. One evening, my older nephew Brian and his fiance Alexis twisted my arm into watching a YouTube video called “Gangnam Style.” Words fail me. Most of the song is in Korean, except for a peculiar Greek-American interjection, “Opa Gangnam Style!” plus “Hey Sexy Lady!” here and there to prove that computer audio is working correctly. I was impressed by the young Korean chap at about 1:50 who was dancing energetically in an actinic yellow leisure suit. I didn’t know you could lase polyester. Most boggling of all was the fact that the video has been downloaded 693,000,000 times, plus or minus a significant fraction of humanity. I caught myself wondering what it would be like if seven hundred million people had read Drumlin Circus. I would probably have a new minivan–and little or no trouble selling Ten Gentle Opportunities.

Anyway. I’m better now. I’ll have nothing more to say about the election except for one very peculiar thing, which I will take up as soon as I understand it a little better myself. Hint: There may be a stoner stampede into Colorado next year.

In the meantime, I have a pop song to eject from the inside of my head. Listen at your own risk. About all I can say is that it’s better than listening to politics on Facebook.