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Blogging Vs. Social Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contra Turns 20

Egad. Contra turned 20 when I wasn’t looking. Actually, I was looking. What I wasn’t doing was breathing. Enough. At night. I think I have a handle on that problerm now, and with any luck at all I’ll be writing more of everything going forward. I’m 50,000 words into my new novel Dreamhealer, and tinkering the last bits of my free ebook FreePascal From Square One. There’s much to be done, now that my energy is starting to come back.

The anniversary was this past June 5. On June 5, 1998, the very first entry in Jeff Duntemann’s VDM Diary went up on the Coriolis Web server. That first entry was nothing grandiose. I didn’t have permalinks on those early entries, so I’ll quote it here in its entirety:

Spent most of this past week in Chicago at Book Expo America, and saw two remarkable “book on demand” operations of interest to small software developers. Both IBM and Xerox have developed super hi-res, high-speed laser printers that print on continuous roll paper, almost like miniature offset printing presses. Both firms have set up subsidiaries to act as service bureaus, capable of producing high-quality perfect-bound books with glossy four-color covers, quantity one, at a unit price of between $2 and $4, depending on the size of the book. They’re targeting the service at small press, and to keep low-volume books from going out of print entirely. But you and I know the real application here is going to be software documentation for small developers, especially shareware developers whose volumes are smallish and unpredictable. Go take a look: IBM and Ingram’s partnership LightningPrint is at www.lightningprint.com.

Those early entries didn’t have titles, and were not the long-form essays that evolved over time, but instead short, newsy items much like I later came to publish as Odd Lots.

For those who didn’t know me back then, “VDM” was our (carefully chosen) acronym for Visual Developer Magazine, published by The Coriolis Group from 1990-2000. By 2000 most of our energy went into books. The magazine, in competition with increasingly sophisticated (and free) Web pages, ceased to be viable toward the end of 1999. The March/April 2000 issue was the last, and VDM Diary closed down with Visual Developer itself.

By that time, however, I was hooked. On July 25, 2000, I created Contrapositive Diary on my own Web hosting space, where it’s been ever since.

So let’s go back to Contra’s secret origins. Without realizing it (and years before that truly ugly word came to prominence) I had invented blogging. Now, others invented it as well. There is such a thing as independent invention, and in truth the idea seems kind of obvious to me. I’m not sure Slashdot is a blog (I’ve always considered it a news site) but it launched in the fall of 1997, though I don’t remember seeing it until a couple of years later. Justin Hall is almost certainly the first blogger in the sense that we use the word today, having invented the concept back in 1994. Still further back in time, I remember reading a periodic (weekly?) posting on Usenet from Moonwatcher, a chap who posted about the phases of the Moon, eclipses, meteor showers, visible planets, and other things relating to astronomy. This was in 1981 or thereabouts, when I worked at Xerox and had a login to ARPANet. So yeah, it’s an old idea, and an obvious one.

Still, I think of it as the best idea I never had.

Huh? It’s true: Contra was someone else’s idea. My ad sales rep for VDM was Lisa Marie Hafeli, and in the spring of 1998 she approached me with a request: Find a way to publish something short online every day, or close to it. What she wanted was more product mentions, which helped her sell ads to industry firms. I wasn’t entirely sure that such a thing would work as an ad sales tool, but the notion of a daily diary online intrigued me. It took until June to get to the top of my stack. At the time I wasn’t in direct control of our Web presence, so (almost) every day before I went home from work I emailed the text to my webmaster Dave, and he added it to the tail end of the HTML file stored on our Web server.

I didn’t post every day, and not every post was a product mention, but the vehicle proved popular with our readers. I wasn’t surprised over the next couple of years when others did the same thing. As I said, it’s a pretty obvious idea. What did surprise me was the scope of its adoption. By the time the company itself shut down in the spring of 2002, the word “blog” had been coined, and blogs were all over the place.

I edited the HTML files by hand as the sole format until 2005, when I created an account on LiveJournal and used it as a mirror of the manually edited month files. I never really liked LiveJournal as a platform, but it did the job until I installed WordPress on my own hosting space in late 2008, launching on 1/1/2009. I later backported the 2008 month files to WordPress, found it more trouble than it was worth, and stopped there. My LiveJournal account still exists, but I get almost no comments on it and assume the platform is no longer as well-used as it was ten years or so ago.

I don’t post on Contra as often as I used to. I get a lot more traffic and exposure on Twitter and Facebook, and I periodically gather short items originally published on Twitter into Odd Lots. (I invariably add a few bullets that never went to Twitter for various reasons, so you won’t see all my Odd Lots on Twitter.)

That’s the story. I enjoy social networking a lot less than I used to, because so much of what goes around online is flat-out political hatred. Still, it’s one of the few ways to get above the noise and be heard. I’m trying to earn a reputation for not being crazy, but alas, the crazy stuff seems to get the most mileage these days. There are insights in that fact somewhere (a lot of insights, for what it’s worth) but I’m not entirely sure I want to be the one to describe them. I’d prefer a peaceful retirement, whatever it takes. Mostly what it takes is not talking about politics.

That’s been my policy for a long time, with only very occasional lapses. It will be my policy going forward, for as long as I can write at all.

65 and Then Some

66 today. By Bismarck’s reckoning, I was supposed to die last year, so any days lived going forward are gravy. My guess? I’d better get used to gravy. I foresee a lot of it. (Gravy, after all, is penance offered for cooking the turkey a little too much.)

I blew past the traditional boundary of old-guy-hood pretty satisfied with the general state of the old guy:

• I’m healthy. This is a matter of good luck more than clean livin’, though I do what I can.
• I know who I am and what I’m good at.
• I am a free man, in an era when an appalling number of my friends have sold themselves into tribal slavery for, well, nothing.
• I am not alone. I walk upwind in life with my soulmate beside me.
• I understand my limitations and have come to terms with them.
• I have arranged my daily life so as to be no at one’s mercy but my own.

This is a pretty good place to be. I could write several books about how I got here, but probably won’t. Such things are highly domain-specific, and your mileage will vary. I’ll postulate a few explanations:

• Luck is real. I recognized good luck and capitalized on it. I recognized bad luck and minimized its consequences.
• Anger is a trap. It killed my grandfather. I will not allow it to kill me.
• I was careful. Whether this interferes with good luck is an interesting question. I’m pretty sure it interferes with bad luck, which is most of what being careful is about. And being careful in turn requires knowledge of things like gravity, kinetic energy, integrity of materials, coefficient of friction, the hiding places of banana peels, and consequences of decisions.
• I learned fast, especially from my mistakes, and doubly especially mistakes due to not being careful.
• I tempered rational thought with emotional thought, and calibrated emotional thought with rational thought. Overall, this amounts to rendering unto the left brain the things that are the left brain’s, and to the right brain the things that are the right brain’s.
• With all my strength I resisted the siren call of tribal slavery and the transparent bullshit of political ideology.
• I can get along with anybody until they go on the attack. When people attack me, I giggle a little and write them off. I don’t tell them I’ve written them off. I just don’t take them seriously anymore.
• I learned fairly early (if not quite early enough) that nothing is simple, and nothing is certain.

My great-grandmother, Martha Winkelmann Duntemann, lived to be 96. That’s my target, and barring some peculiar and unlikely advance in anti-aging technology, it’s a reasonable expectation in the 21st Century. It means I have thirty years to go. That’s a long time and a short time; thirty years ago I was editing Turbo Technix, which seems like yesterday. My plan file for those thirty years is fairly simple:

• I will love my wife;
• I will tell my tales;
• I will exercise my mind;
• I will enjoy the company of my friends;
• And I will revel in a life lived at what I consider the best time in human history to be alive, in our beautiful and extravagant creation.

I invite all of you to join me, chill out a little, and (as my grade school friend Rich Maas says) enjoy the ride!

Odd Lots

  • Lazarus 1.8.4 has been released. Bug-fix release but still worth having. Go get it!
  • From the Questions-I-Never-Thought-to-Ask Department: How was sheet music written after quill pens but before computers? With a music typewriter, of course.
  • How to become a morning person. Yes, there are benefits. The larger question of whether circadian orientation is born or made remains unanswered. Carol and I both lived at home during college. We’re both morning people. My sister and I had the same parents, grew up in the same house and obeyed the same rules (bedtimes were set from above and were not negotiable) and she went away to school. She is a night person. Proves nothing, but I find the correlation intriguing. (Thanks to Charlie Martin for the link.)
  • Here’s a long-form, highly technical paper on why human exposure to low-level radiation is more complex than we thought (hey, what isn’t?) and that some data suggests a little radiation experienced over a long timeframe actually acts against mortality. I’d never heard of the Taiwan cobalt-60 incident, but yikes!
  • Sleep, exercise, and a little wine may help the brain’s glymphatic system clean out unwanted amyloid waste products within the brain, preventing or staving off Alzheimer’s. This process may be the reason that anything with a brain sleeps, and why humans (who have more brain matter per pound than anything else I’m aware of) should get as much sleep as we can.
  • An enormous study on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet was found to be profoundly flawed, and has been retracted. The data was supposedly re-analyzed and the original results obtained again, but if the researchers made the mistakes they did originally (assuming that they were in fact mistakes and not deliberate faking) I see no reason to trust any of their data, their people, or their methods ever again.
  • How faddism, computerization, national bookstore ordering, a court case, and New York City cultural dominance destroyed (and continues to destroy) traditional publishing of genre fiction. The good news is that with indie publishing it matters far less than it otherwise would.
  • If you’ve followed the nuclear energy industry for any significant amount of time, you know that fusion power is always 30 years in the future. Now, I’ve also been hearing about thorium reactors for almost 30 years, and I got to wondering why we don’t have them yet either. Here’s a good discussion on the problems with thorium power, which intersect heavily with the problems plaguing ordinary uranium reactors.
  • Long-held myths die hard, especially when governments beat the drum for the myth. Eggs are good food. I eat at least two every day, sometimes more. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study indicating that people on a lots-of-eggs diet lost weight and suffered no cardiac consequences of any kind. Good short summary here.
  • I don’t see a lot of movies, but I’m in for this one, crazy though the concept is. After all, spectacle is what the big screen and CGI are for. Mad Max meets Cities in Flight? Sold.
  • The contrarian in me has long wondered how much of what I put out on the street every week in the recycle can is actually recycled. The answer is very little, especially since single-stream recycling became fashionable. Almost all of it goes into landfills. The reasons are complex (there’s not a lot you can do with scrap plastic, for example) but apart from aluminum cans, the cost of sorting it far exceeds the value of the reclaimed materials.
  • The antivax movement has always boggled me for its indomitably willful stupidity. Having stumbled upon a research paper on who the antivaxers are I boggle further: They are almost all members of the educated elite in our urban cores. This was always a suspicion of mine, and now we have proof.
  • Here’s a fascinating piece on the effects of water vapor and continental drift on global temperatures. The topic is complex, and the piece is long and rich, with plenty of graphs. The comments are worth reading too. The primary truth I’ve learned in researching climate for the last ten or fifteen years is that it’s fiendishly complex.
  • Brilliantly put: “But anger isn’t a strategy. Sometimes it’s a trap. When you find yourself spewing four-letter words, you’ve fallen into it. You’ve chosen cheap theatrics over the long game, catharsis over cunning.” –Frank Bruni, NYT.
  • A few days back I got Leonard Bernstein’s quirky, half-classical, half-klezmer “Overture to Candide” stuck in my head all afternoon. One listen to this was all it took.
  • I got there by recovering an old memory, of a chap who came to SF cons in the 70s with a strange keyboard instrument that he blew on through a hose, which as you might expect sounded like a piano accordion without a bellows. He was a filker and played interesting things, and I always assumed that he had somehow built the device himself. (It was much-used and taped up in several places.) But no, the chap is Irwin S. “Filthy Pierre” Strauss, and the instrument is a melodica.
  • Finally, one of the creepiest articles I’ve seen in a couple of years. I considered and set aside a plotline in my upcoming nanotech novel The Molten Flesh that involved sexbots, real, fully mobile AI sexbots enlivened (if that’s the word) by the Protea device. Maybe I should bring it back. The original 1959 Twilight Zone episode “The Lonely” has always haunted me. Maybe sex is a sideshow. Maybe it’s about having something to care about that cares back, and therefore gives your life meaning. I could work with that.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…so good.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hose Wars, Part 1: Overview

ResMed S10 AirSense 500 Wide.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Magical Systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go for it.

How to Build a Bentonite Ground System

Back when Carol and I lived here in the ’90s and early oughts, I had a large lot and a 200-foot wire antenna for the low bands. The antenna didn’t work well…because what I didn’t have was a good ground. Now that we’re back in Arizona, I decided to begin with the ground system, and work up from there toward the antennas.

The problem with Arizona is that it’s dry. No surprise there; in Spanish, Arizona means “dry zone.” At our house on the far north end of the Phoenix metro area, I simply drove an 8′ ground rod into the soil next to my workshop/shack, and clamped a length of #8 solid copper wire to the rod. I figured it would work. It didn’t. The problem (surprise!) was the dry soil, which left the ground rod practically insulated. It was better than nothing, but it certainly couldn’t touch the grounds I’ve had out east, especially the ground I had in Rochester NY. The difference is that I had a swamp at the back of our lot in Rochester, and a climate that delivered rain probably a third of the year. My ground rod was set in soil so wet it was actually mud most of the time that it wasn’t frozen. Tricky to grow vegetables in (our strawberries did well) but man, my Hy-Gain 18 AVT took me around the world.

This time, I did some detailed reading on ground systems, and enlisted the help of Joe Flamini W4BXG, who is a EE and has been licensed longer than I have. I ran the plan past Joe, who approved. This past Saturday, I finished it.

So. The basic idea is to increase the conductive area of a ground rod, so that it connects to a greater area than the area of a 5/8″ diameter rod. From a height, you do this:

  • Dig a round hole.
  • Drive the ground rod down into the soil at the center of the bottom of the hole.
  • Put a length of PVC pipe in which you’ve drilled a large number of holes into the hole beside the ground rod.
  • Fill the hole with sodium bentonite clay, moistened with an ionic solution like Epsom salts.
  • Keep the bentonite and the soil around it a little damp. (This is what the hole-y pipe is for.)

Now let’s go through what I did in detail.

I had our landscape company bring out an earth auger. I expected something a little smaller, having looked around at tool rental firms. This one had a 12″ auger 48″ long. It took just 15 minutes, and I was glad I didn’t have to control the monster myself.

Drilling the Hole - 500 Wide.jpg

Earth augers are not tidy things. In fact, the hardest single part of the project was using an improvised scoop on a long handle to get the last of the loose dirt out of the bottom of the hole. Nor was the hole completely straight. Still, it was straight enough.

Next, I took the ground rod and used my bench grinder to sharpen its point:

Ground Rod - 500 Wide.jpg

I then used steel wool to brighten the copper the full length of the rod. This makes it more conductive, which is the whole idea. Having brought it to a nice bright polish, I took out my five-pound sledge and drove the rod into the center of the hole. I had previously bought a 4′ length of threaded 1/2″ schedule 80 PVC pipe, and drilled holes every inch down the full length of the pipe. Each drill pass cut two holes, giving me two rows of holes on opposite sides of the pipe. I put PVC caps on both ends, and positioned the pipe in the hole with an artfully bent coat hanger.

Moistener Pipe - 300 Wide.jpgI had done the math on the volume of the hole and the density of bentonite clay, and calculated that I would need four 50-pound bags of bentonite powder. I bought it from a drilling supplies firm on the west side, for $8 a bag. (Bentonite has many uses, and one common use is borehole mud.) Some people mix a bentonite slurry in a wheelbarrow and then tip the slurry into the hole, but I didn’t have a wheelbarrow. What I did is fill the hole by pouring in a layer (3″ or so) of bentonite powder, and then wetting it with water in which I had dissolved ten pounds of Epsom salts. I stirred the goop a little with a metal rod to make sure all the powder got wet.

I repeated this layering process until the hole was full. Miraculously, my 200 pounds of bentonite clay powder filled the hole to within 2″ of the rim. Enough, and none left over. (Math works!) Once I filled the hole and wet the top layer down, I forced water into the moistener pipe with a pressure nozzle, taking advantage of Phoenix’s relatively high water pressure. The idea is to make sure that all of the powder becomes mud.

A few notes on bentonite powder: It’s as fine as talcum powder, and blew around in Saturday’s unfortunate wind while I poured it. I wore a mask to keep from inhaling it. When wet, it becomes a slippery, slimy-feeling mess that clings to everything it touches. I was very glad I didn’t try to mix a slurry outside the hole. Bentonite gloms onto water, and over time, the clay in the hole will become uniformly damp. I’ll sprinkle the hole with the garden hose periodically, and pour some additional Epsom salts solution into the moistener pipe.

Pouring the Bentonite - 500 Wide.jpg

I’ve been soaking it each day, not only the bentonite but also the soil around it. Bentonite expands slightly when wet, and will force itself into all the tiny voids in the interface between the soil and the bentonite fill. In my neighborhood we have the advantage (for ground systems at least) of a septic system, which distributes a different sort of ion solution into the soil. I’m expecting far better soil conductivity here than we ever had in our ’90s house.

That’s pretty much it. I have no antennas mounted yet, so I can’t test it for the time being. No problem; once I have my feed-throughs in place, I’ll run a length of wire up to one of the palm trees, and see how well my IC-736 loads. Jim Strickland suggested building a simple crystal radio using a germanium diode, of which I have many in the drawer. Crystal sets are very dependent on a good ground, as I discovered in my distant youth. If I can bring in local AM stations well, I’ll consider the ground a success. The ultimate goal is to get a ground-mounted trap vertical, like the 18-AVT or similar. In the meantime, I know how to get a lot out of 75′ of copper wire worked against a good ground.

And now, for the first time in a fair number of years, I have a good ground!

Odd Lots