- Author Nick Cole has his finger on what’s wrong with print publishing. A big chunk of it is Barnes & Noble. He says what I’ve been saying for some time: The fate of the Big 5 print publishers is tied to B&N’s. When B&N goes under, there will be blood in the streets of Manhattan.
- Great article on that 1920s curiosity, spinning-disk television, with the first actual videos I’ve ever seen of the bottle-cap sized screens in action.
- And more cool hacks, if newer ones: A home-made full-auto crossbow. Dip it in holy water and the vampires will run screaming, like they did in Van Helsing. (Thanks to Bradford C. Walker for the link.)
- The cool hacks never quit! Here’s some basic information on using an SDR dongle with the Raspberry Pi. There’s actually a lot of activity on SDR for the RPi these days. Google it, but budget an hour or two for the browsing. One note up front: Consensus is that the original RPi doesn’t have the muscle to do SDR well. Use a version 2 or 3. (Thanks to Rick Hellewell for the link.)
- The science just keeps piling up: Eating fatty foods can make you healthier and slimmer. You can do the science yourself, as I explained in a series some time back.
- The Chicago Tribune has declared that Obamacare has failed. When you lose the mainstream media, methinks it’s well and truly over.
- The history of Radithor, the first nuclear energy drink. Not a good idea, to put it mildly. Me, when I need more energy I just suck a few more Penguin Peppermints, or run up to 64th & Greenway and get a 44 oz Diet Mountain Dew. Works. (Thanks to Esther Schindler for the link.)
- Yeah. Radium, the gift that keeps on giving: Madame Curie’s notebooks, furniture, clothes, and other personal effects are still radioactive, and will be for another 1,500 years or so. They’re considered national treasures by the French, and are stored in lead-lined boxes. You need to sign a waiver to unbox and view them. You go. I’ll watch the slide show.
- A nuclear energy company has applied to the NRC to build a small modular nuclear reactor. ‘Bout damned time. There is NO solution–and I mean NO with a capital NO–to global warming that is not based on nuclear. If you do not enthusiastically support nuclear energy, don’t talk to me about global warming.
- Several Spanish towns saw their first significant snowfalls in 90 years recently. One report like that means nothing. But I’m seeing more and more of them all the time. Also, teaching people that weather = climate cuts both ways; a couple of bad winters will have them thinking that the world is actually cooling.
There’s been an unexpected irruption of normalcy here, while we sail upon the whine-dark seas of modern American life. (I’ve been wanting to use the word “irruption” here, correctly, for some time.) What this means is that I’ve been able to do some of what I want to do, and not merely what my do-it list tells me I have to do. It won’t last, but while it does I’m going to make the most of it.
A number of people have suggested that I write a few short novels to get the size of my list up a little. I wrote Drumlin Circus (53,000 words) in only six weeks, after all. But as I recall, those were very full weeks. So a month or so ago I got an idea for a new short novel, and I’m glad to say I now have 6,300 words down on it; figure 12% or so. It’s whimsical, and whether or not it’s fantasy depends heavily on whether you believe that the collective unconscious is real or not. I’d like to bring it in at between 50,000 and 60,000 words, so don’t expect all-new built-from-scratch universes a la The Cunning Blood. However, I do promise a trademark Jeff Duntemann mayhem-filled action climax.
And a dream repairman. I mean that: A guy who drops into your nightmares and hands you your pants while he gives you directions to calculus class. People who have nightmares love him. The nightmares, well, not so much.
My old writer friend Jim Strickland and I are going to attempt something interesting to keep our productivity up: a chapter challenge. Starting February 1, we’re going to dare each other to get a certain amount of story down in a week, and then exchange that’s week’s worth of story for some quick critique. He’s working on the sequel to Brass & Steel: Inferno and needs a gentle noodge. I need one too, though sometimes what I really need is a two-boot noodge right in the glutes. Neither of us has ever done anything quite like this before. I’ll post reports here as things happen.
Even the do-it list has yielded some things that are actually fun, including a bit of metalwork to make an aluminum grating for my particle board shelves to rest on out in the pool shed (against the several times a year when a hard rain gets under the door and soaks the floor) and mounting some Elfa hardware on the opposite shed wall.
Drilling three 8′ pieces of U-channel for the grate took a little finesse in my slightly cramped workshop. The drill press is where it is (close to the center of the space) for a reason. (See the photo at the top of this entry.) The next major project (as time allows) is getting a solid ground for my station and antennas. I have an 8′ ground rod. I need some bentonite, and a post hole digger. After that, le RF deluge…
I haven’t done a lot of programming for the last couple of years, and I miss it. Interstate moves and oxygen starvation will do that to you. I’ve converted some of my old Delphi apps to Lazarus, which in truth wasn’t hard and probably can’t be called programming with a straight face. And I have a project that I need to get back to, even if it has to be written in Delphi 7, which is the most recent version that I have. (Turbo Delphi doesn’t count.) I no longer had a publishing company after Delphi 7 appeared, so post-2002 I dropped off their reviewers list. And $1,400 is a little steep for hobby programming–much less $4700 on the high end.
For some years I’ve been poking at the concept of a personal medical database. I’m old now (how did that happen??!?) and I take pills and get bloodwork and monitor various things to make sure none of my component parts are rusting out. I have Word documents full of notes, and scribbles on paper calendars, all of which really need to be pulled together into one searchable and reportable database. Some doctors won’t believe that my blood pressure does not respond to sodium. I have proof. I’ll bet, furthermore, that it will be a lot more convincing if it’s placed in their hands as a professional-looking report.
All of what I’ve done so far has been in Lazarus, and most of that has been small proof-of-concept lashups, none of them newer than 2012. However, a marvelous report generator product has crossed my desk, and I want to give it a shot with my medbase app. The product is List & Label 22, from Combit, a small firm in southern Germany. It has God’s own kitchen sink of features, many of them related to Web programming, which I simply don’t do. However, it has all conventional reporting options I’ve ever heard of well-covered, and it supports all versions of Delphi back to D6. (It supports Visual Studio and many other dev platforms as well.)
It doesn’t support Lazarus, alas. So I’ll be trying it out in D7.
The big win (for me at least) is that L&L 22 provides a report designer in VCL component format that drops on a form and becomes part of your application. This allows end users to design their own reports. Given that my end user is me, I don’t have to worry about end users doing gonzo things. I’ve always liked my software to exist as One Big Chunk (DLL hell, and all that) so this is right up my alley.
I don’t yet know precisely what reports I’ll want, and it may be the case that I won’t know until I actually need one for a specific purpose, like laying out my data indicating that salt is irrelevant to my blood pressure. Having a report designer right there in the app means that I can design the report that I need when I need it, and not try to anticipate every damn thing I’ll ever want while I’m building the program itself.
I should make it very clear here that I don’t dislike modern Delphi. I still love it, but it’s gotten enormously expensive, and the Starter Edition does not include database programming features. My other reason for using Lazarus is that I still intend to write intro-to-programming books using Pascal as the teaching language. Expecting students to pay even $250 for the Delphi Starter Edition is asking a lot, and worse, I intend to teach database work as well as conventional programming.
I’ll have more to say about List & Label as I learn it. Ditto the medical database itself, which is now a set of tables full of test data and a couple of conceptual UIs. Stay tuned.
Somebody I follow on Twitter (don’t recall who) posted a link to a video about a new product out of Japan called Gatebox. It’s a little round 3-D video display roughly the size and shape of a coffee machine. An anime character lives in the display and has what seem like reasonable conversations with the user. It’s like Siri or Cortana on video, and it stirred some very old memories.
I’ve been thinking about AI since I was in college forty-odd years ago, and many of my earliest SF stories were about strong AI and what might come of it. Given how many stories I’ve written about it, some of you may be surprised that I put strong, human-class AI in the same class as aliens: not impossible, but extremely unlikely. The problems I have with aliens cook down to the Fermi paradox and the Drake equation. Basically, there may well be a single intelligent species (us) or there may be hundreds of millions. There are unlikely to be four, nine, seventeen, or eight hundred fifty four. If there were hundreds of millions, we’d likely have met them by now.
With AI, the problem is insufficient humility to admit that we have no idea how human intelligence works at the neuronal level, and hence can’t model it. If we can’t model it we can’t emulate it. Lots of people are doing good work in the field, especially IBM (with Watson) and IPSoft, which has an impressive AI called Amelia. (Watch the videos, and look past her so-so animation. Animation isn’t the issue here.) Scratchbuilt AIs like Amelia can do some impressive things. What I don’t think they can do is be considered even remotely human.
Why not? Human intelligence is scary. AI as we know it today isn’t nearly scary enough. You want scary? Let me show you another chunkette of The Lotus Machine, from later in the novel of AI that I began in 1983 and abandoned a few years later. Corum finds the Lotus Machine, and learns pretty quickly that pissing off virtual redheads is not a good idea, especially redheads whose hive minds ran at four gigahertz inside a quarter billion jiminies.
From The Lotus Machine by Jeff Duntemann (November 1983)
Corum tapped the silver samovar on his window credenza into a demitasse, and stared at the wall beyond the empty tridiac stage. So here’s where the interesting stuff starts. The crystal had been in the slot for several minutes, and the creature within had full control of the stage. Pouting? Frightened?
“Go in there and take a look around, Rags.”
“Roger,” Ragpicker replied, and a long pulse of infrared tickled the stage’s transducer.
At once, the air over the stage pulsed white and cleared. Life-size, the image of a woman floated over the stage, feet slack and toes pointed downward like the ascending Virgin. She was wrapped in pale blue gauze that hung from her hips and elbows in folds that billowed in a nonexistent wind. Her hair hung waist-long, fiery red in loose curls. One hand rested on one full hip. The other hand gripped the neck of a pitiful manikin the size of a child’s doll. The manikin, dressed in rags, was squirming and beating on the very white hand that was obviously tightening about its neck.
“He bit me, Corum. I don’t care for that.” The woman-image brought up her other hand and wrung the manikin’s neck. “We don’t need a go-between.” That said, she flung the limp figure violently in Corum’s direction. The manikin-image vanished as soon as it passed over the edge of the stage, but Corum ducked nonetheless. Corum stood, marveling. He took a sip from his demitasse, then hurled it through the image above the stage. The little cup shattered against the wall and fell in shards to the carpeting. A brown stain trickled toward the floor. The woman smiled. Not a twitch. “No thanks, Corum my love. Coffee darkens the skin.”
“I never gave the Lotus Machine a persona.”
The woman shrugged. “So I had to invent one. Call me Cassandra. Shall I predict your future?”
“You will become one with me, and we will re-make the world in our image.”
Corum shivered. “No thanks.”
She laughed. “It wasn’t an invitation. It was a prophecy.”
Earlier today, one of my Twitter correspondents mentioned that he much liked my conceptual descriptions of wearable computers called jiminies. I did a couple of short items in PC Techniques describing a technology I first wrote about in 1983, when I was trying to finish a novel called The Lotus Machine. I got the idea for jiminies in the late 1970s, with elements of the technology dating back to my Clarion in 1973. (I wrote a little about that back in November.) A jiminy was a computer that you pinned to your lapel, or wore as a pair of earrings, or wore in the frames of your glasses. Jiminies talked, they listened, and for the most part they understood. I remember the first time I ever saw an Amazon Echo in action. Cripes! It’s a jiminy!
1983 was pre-mobile. Jiminies communicated with one another via modulated infrared light. Since almost everybody had one, they were almost always connected to an ad-hoc jiminy network that could pass data from one to another using a technology I surmised would be like UUCP, which I had access to at Xerox starting in 1981. I never imagined that a jiminy would have its own display, because they were supposed to be small and inobtrusive. Besides, our screens were 80 X 24 text back then, and if you’d told me we’d have full color flat screens soon, I’d have thought you were crazy. So like everything else (except the big bulky Alto machine in the corner of our lab) jiminies were textual devices. It was spoken text, but still text.
I never finished The Lotus Machine. I was trying to draw a believable character in Corum Vavrik, and I just don’t think I was emotionally mature enough to put across the nuances I planned. Corum was originally a rock musician using a technology that played music directly into your brain through a headband that worked like an EEG in reverse. Then he became a ghost hacker, where “ghost” was a term for an AI running inside a jiminy. Finally he went over to the other side, and became a cybercrime investigator. Something was killing everyone he ever cared about, and as the story opens, he’s pretty sure he knows what: a rogue AI he created and called the Lotus Machine.
The story takes place in 2047, with most of the action in Chicago and southern Illinois. I realized something startling as I flipped through the old Word Perfect document files: I predicted selfies. Take a look. Yes, it’s a little dumb. I was 31, and as my mom used to say, I was young for my age. But damn, I predicted selfies. That’s gotta be worth something.
From The Lotus Machine by Jeff Duntemann (November 1983)
Against the deep Illinois night the air over the silver ellipse on the dashboard pulsed sharply once in cream-colored light and rippled to clarity. Corum’s younger face looked out from the frozen moment into the car’s interior with a disturbing manic intensity, raising a freeform gel goblet of white wine, other arm swung back, hand splayed against a wood frieze carved into Mondrianesque patterns. His crown was bare even then, but the fringe at ear level grew to shoulder length, mahogany brown, thick in cohesive waves.
“Please stop tormenting yourself,” Ragpicker said.
“Shut up. Give me a full face on each person at the table.”
“Ok.” One by one, Ragpicker displayed each person sharing the booth with Corum that night. Three faces in tolerable light; one profile badly seen in shadow. When people congregated, their jiminies cooperated to record the scenes, silently trading images through infrared eyes, helping one another obtain the best views of vain owners.
A slender man with waist-length black hair. “Dunphy. Dead ten years now.” Steel grey hair and broken nose. “Lambrakis. Dead too, was it four, five years?”
A lightly built Japanese with large, burning eyes. “Feanor. Damn! Him too.”
The profile…little to go by but thick lips and small, upturned nose. “I’m pretty sure that was Cinoq-the nose is right. How sure are we that that’s Cinoq?”
“Ninety percent. You began sleeping with him some months later. Of course, if he had had a jiminy…”
“Damned radical atavist. I often wonder how he could stand us.” The car leaned into a curve. Corum’s fingers tightened on the armrest. “He died that year. Gangfight. Who else heard us?”
“In that environment, no one. It was four A.M. and nearly empty, and the fugues were playing especially loud. At your request.”
Corum stared out at the night, watched a small cluster of houses vanish to one side, tiny lights here and there in distant windows. “An awful lot of my friends have died young. Everybody from the Gargoyle, the whole Edison Park crowd-where’s Golda now? Any evidence?”
“Not a trace. No body. Just gone.” The ghost paused, Corum knew, for effect only. It was part of Ragpicker’s conversational template. So predictably unpredictable. “She hated it all, all but the Deep Music.”
“It’s not music.” Not the way he had played it, nor Feanor, nor the talentless dabblers like Lambrakis. Golda wanted to reach into the midbrain with the quiet melodies of the New England folk instruments she made herself from bare wood. It didn’t work-couldn’t, not in a medium that spoke directly to the subconscious. Rock could be felt, but true music had to be listened to.
She loved me, Corum thought. So what did I do? Sleep with men. Sleep with teenage girls.
“She took drugs,” Ragpicker reminded. “You hated drugs.”
“Shut up. Dead, like everybody else. All but me. And why me?”
“It isn’t you!”
“It is. We’ve got to find the Lotus Machine, Rags.”
“We’re going to start looking.”
The ghost said nothing. Corum reached up to his lapel, felt the warm black coffin shape pinned there, with two faceted garnet eyes. A ghost, a hacked ghost, hacked by the best ghosthack who ever lived, hacked so that it could not assist in any search for what Corum most wished to forget.
“I hacked you a good hack, old spook. But it’s time to own up. I’ll find the Lotus Machine myself. And someday I’ll unhack you. Promise”
- Eating red meat will not hurt your heart. This is not news to people who’ve been paying attention. Alas, meat has been slandered as deadly for so many years that we’re going to be shooting this lie in the head for decades before it finally bleeds to death.
- There are at least two efforts underway to back-breed the aurochs, a very large and ill-tempered ruminant that went extinct in 1627. I made use of aurochs in The Cunning Blood; the Moomoos (basically, cowboys on Hell) had difficulty herding them until they domesticated the mastodon and rode mastodons instead of horses.
- Who will fact-check the fact-checkers? In truth, there is no answer to this question, which heads toward an infinite regress at a dead run. Nobody trusts anybody else in journalism today. To me, this means that journalism as an industry might as well be dead.
- Even the New York Times is willing to admit that cold weather is 17 times deadlier than warm weather. This is one reason we moved to Arizona: Winters have been nasty in Colorado for several years, and I have an intuition that flatlining solar activity may make things a lot colder before they get warmer.
- Russian scientists evidently agree with me. And y’know, the Russians might just know a few things about cold weather.
- The Army is accelerating development of a railgun compact enough to fire from something the size and shape of a howitzer. 10 rounds per minute, too. With one of those you could poke a lot of very big holes in very big things in a very big hurry. (Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link.)
- Can’t afford a howitzer railgun? How about a snowboard powered by ducted fans? The idea is cool. Watching the guy put it together in fast-motion is cooler.
- SF writer Paul Mauser suggests that publishing’s gatekeeper function has been crowdsourced on the indie side, and I agree. You can’t always tell if an indie book is good before you buy it. Guess what? You can’t always tell if a print book is good before you buy it. Manhattan’s imprints can barely pay the rent and want interns to work in editorial for free. Warning: It’s handy to have gatekeepers who know how gates work, and why.
- Gatekeepers? Where were the gatekeepers when Kaavya Viswanathan allegedly cribbed a whole novel together from other authors’ work and then sold it to Little, Brown for half a million bucks?
- Pertinent to the above: There’s a very nice site devoted to plagiarism, which is evidently a far bigger problem than I would have guessed.
- An obscure author (of three memoirs) claimed that indie publishing is “an insult to the written word.” Watch Larry Correia lay waste to her essay. Don’t be drinking Diet Mountain Dew while you read it, now. Green stuff pouring out of your nose is generally embarrassing.
- This item is probably not what you think it is. The manufacturer could probably have used a little gatekeeping on the product design side.
John Glenn. Carrie Fisher. Debbie Reynolds. Zsa Zsa Gabor. Gene Wilder. Lots, lots more. OMG! Worst year evah!
I wonder. And because I wonder, I doubt it.
It’s certainly true that a lot of famous people died in 2016. However, we didn’t have any plagues or natural disasters that would raise the death rate significantly, so we have to assume that these deaths are unrelated to one another, and that we can’t finger any single cause or groups of causes. First, some short notes on mortality itself:
- Plenty of ordinary people died too. We had one death in our extended family. Several of my friends lost parents this year. A quick look back shows such deaths happening every three or four years. There was a peak circa 2000-2010 when extended family in the Greatest Generation were dying. Those individuals were in their 80s, mostly, which is when a great many people die.
- There are a lot of Baby Boomers, and Baby Boomers are hitting a knee in the mortality curve. The oldest Boomers are crossing 70 now, and the curve goes up sharply after that.
- Basically, there are lots more old people now than in the past, and old people die more frequently.
All that is pretty obvious, and I list it here as a reminder. Humanity is aging. That’s not a bad thing, if living longer is better than dying young. In truth, I thought Zsa Zsa Gabor died years if not decades ago. She lived to 99, so she stood out in my mind, as does anyone who lives well into their 90s.
Which brings us to the issue of fame. There are different kinds of fame. Three types come to mind:
- Horizontal fame falls to people who are very famous and generally known to the population at large.
- Vertical fame falls to people who are well-known within narrower populations.
- Age cohort fame is vertical fame along a time axis: It falls to people who are generally known but by people in a narrower age cohort, like Boomers or Millennials.
John Glenn had horizontal fame. Zsa Zsa Gabor had age-cohort fame: She had been out of the public eye for quite some time, so while Boomers mostly knew who she was, I’ll bet plenty of Millennials did not. Vertical fame is interesting, and I have a very good example: David Bunnell was a tech journalist, so as a tech journalist I knew him (personally, in fact, if not well) and know that he was well-known in tech journalism and very much missed. The fact that another well-known and much-loved tech journalist, Bill Machrone, died only two weeks later, gave us the impression that tech journalism had a target on its forehead this year. The fact that both men were 69 at the times of their deaths just made the whole thing stand out as “weird” and memorable in a grim way.
Most people have a passion (or several) not shared by all others. We can’t pay attention to everything, but all of us have a few things we pay attention to very closely. I’m not a medical person, so when Donald Henderson (the man who wiped out smallpox) died, I had to look him up. Those in science and healthcare probably recognized his name more quickly than people who focus on music or NASCAR. The point here is that almost everyone falls into some vertical interest bracket, and notices when a person famous within their bracket (but otherwise obscure) dies. This multiplies the perception of many famous people dying in any given year.
The proliferation of vertical brackets contributes to another fame issue: We are making more famous people every year. Vertical brackets are only part of it. With a larger population, there is more attention to be focused on the famous among us, allowing more people to cross the admittedly fuzzy boundary between obscurity and fame.
The key here is mass media, which creates fame and to some extent dictates who gets it. The mainstream media may be suffering but it’s still potent, and the more cable channels there are, the more broadly fame can be distributed. I doubt we’re producing as many movies as we used to, but the movies that happen are seen and discussed very broadly. I confess I don’t understand the cult of celebrity and find it distasteful. Still, celebrity and gossip are baked into our genes. (This is related to tribalism, which I’ll return to at some point. I’m starting to run long today and need to focus.)
Over the past ten years, of course, social media has appeared, and allows news to travel fast, even news catering to a relatively narrow audience. Social media amplifies the impact of celebrity deaths. I doubt I would have known that Zsa Zsa had died if I hadn’t seen somebody’s Twitter post. I didn’t much care, but I saw it.
There is another issue that many people may not appreciate: More people were paying attention to news generally in 2016. Why? The election. The profound weirdness and boggling viciousness of this year’s races had a great many people spending a lot more time online or in front of the TV, trying to figure out what the hell was actually happening, and why. I think this made the celebrity deaths that did happen a lot more visible than they might have been in a non-election year.
Finally, averages are average. There are always peaks and troughs. In fact, a year in which celebrity death rates were simply average would be slightly anomalous in itself, though no one but statisticians would likely notice. I’m guessing that we had a peak year this year. Next year might be kinder to celebrities. We won’t know until we get there.
To sum up: This past year, for various reasons, more people were paying attention, and there were more ways to pay attention. These trend lines will continue to rise, and I have a sneaking suspicion that next year may also be seen as deadly, as will the year after that, until the curves flatten out and we enter into some sort of new normal.
Grim, sure, but not mysterious. There may well be reasons to consider 2016 a terrible year, but thinking rationally, the number of celebrity deaths is not among them.
Before I turn it over to Brian, a note or two on what this is about. First of all, if you haven’t read what I wrote as intro to his first guest post, it’s here and worth reading. Brian’s making quite a stir in the business, and it’s in part his success (and the success of other indie writers that I hang with) that led me to scrub traditional publishing out of my life last year. A key element of my long game is to create a new blog that follows the same general functional model as the Mad Genius Club, with posts from several indie writers on the process of writing, the tech of self-publishing, news and announcements, excerpts, odd lots, and pertinent gossip about the industry as a whole. When this happens is unclear, but I’m working on it. It’ll be 100% trad-free and 277.79% contrarian. No fake news, some commentary, and (I certainly hope) a near-daily posting schedule. Watch This Space. And now, heeeeeerrrrrreeee’s Brian:
Greetings, Contrapositive Diary readers! Jeff has kindly lent me his blog to announce the launch of my new SFF novel The Secret Kings, Soul Cycle Book III. This book is the follow up to Souldancer, the first–and so far, only–indie novel to win a Dragon Award. But whereas Souldancer took the Best Horror Novel prize, the sequel fits much more comfortably into the space opera genre with a more straightforward plot that’s even more focused on action. The Secret Kings is also the point in the series where events and concepts from prior books really gel. Characters from Nethereal and Souldancer get drawn together in ways that early readers found highly intriguing, and plot threads spun in earlier installments find satisfying conclusions.
This isn’t the end, though! Leave it to the guy who bypassed the traditional publishing path altogether to also buck the trilogy trend. I can divulge right now that there will be a Soul Cycle Book IV, and inf fact, a preview of what’s in store next is included at the end of The Secret Kings. It’s an understatement to say that this series has exceeded expectations. Nethereal earned me a Campbell nomination. Souldancer won a Dragon. By all accounts, The Secret Kings marks a new series high point. There’s no telling where this ride will take us, so get on board!
Thanks again to Jeff for helping out with my book launch, and for all of his sterling advice. You can be certain that I’m just getting warmed up.
It’s 1895. Nineteen hundred pounds of pure silver bound for the Federal Mint has vanished. The paper trail is airtight, but the silver is gone. US Marshal Dante Blackmore is put on the case. He travels by airship to Perdition, Nevada, where the silver was mined and smelted. His orders are to help the local sheriff find the silver, but the sheriff is inexplicably hostile, and the town just smells…wrong.
It’s 1895, but it’s not our 1895. In this alternate timeline, the midlate 19th Century was shaped by a war against a peculiar technology that appeared to come out of nowhere: self-assembling subterranean factories called nodes, factories powered by steam and occult force, factories that could think, turning out fake human beings to act as soldiers in a battle for the Earth itself. The imposter humans are so convincing that they’re called doppelgangers, or (colloquially) dopes. They’re convincing mostly because they were once living humans, processed into steampunk cyborgs who are neither truly alive nor dead. They are, however, immensely strong and extremely durable, steel bones and nanotech goo hidden inside human flesh, powered by a cold-fusion boiler. Their minds are enslaved by what might be called mental force or black magic, connecting them back to intelligences that have never been clearly identified. They are deadly, and Earth’s best took years to root out the nodes and destroy them, with enormous casualties. Little by little over the subsequent decades, Earth’s best minds began reverse-engineering the technology and using some of its mechanisms to advance human progress. There are bitter arguments about whether this is actually a good idea, and rumors of secret US government repositories where the strangest of this strange collection are hidden, deemed too powerful and dangerous to see the light of day.
Dante Blackmore knows all this with bitter clarity, he who fought the nodes and their armies of steam-powered zombies during his stint in the US Cavalry. After all, he crawled into a Node, blew it sky-high, and then crawled out again, alive.
To me, the very best part about indie publishing is that it allows authors to break out of genre categories dictated by the needs of physical bookstore shelving. I shopped Ten Gentle Opportunities to traditional publishers for three years before going out on my own. I described what I was doing in great detail, but none of the editors I spoke to seemed to understand the concept. Furthermore, not one of them was willing to even look at a sample chapter. It was infuriating.
Ancient history. I’ve now made as much (or a little more) from TGO as I would have with a typical first-novel contract. And that with little time or energy to promote it as it should be promoted. I consider the novel a success. Better still, I see other writers in my circle doing the same thing: bending genres to their own needs, indie publishing their stories, and making money without chaining themselves to what may be a doomed business model.
Jim Strickland is one of these. Brass and Steel: Inferno is not his first novel (his third, in fact) but it is the first to be completely free of those sorts of constraints. The story is what I call hard fantasy. I first encountered hard fantasy in Larry Niven’s Warlock stories from the ’70s, which focus on an internally consistent system of magic treating magic as a form of stored energy that may be consumed and eventually depleted, like a seam of coal. Decades later, hard fantasy is most visible in the work of Larry Correia, especially his Hard Magic / Spellbound / Warbound trilogy. This is magic as alternative or extended physics, with detailed laws and limitations that keep it from becoming arbitrarily (and boringly) omnipotent. (Brian Niemeier does much the same thing in his Soul Cycle books, as I’ll get back to in a future entry.)
Jim’s system of magic is consistent and detailed enough that it might as well be considered technology from top to bottom, in a sort of flipside of Clarke’s Third Law. The doppelgangers are a new thing in the realm of SFnal ideas, as best I can tell, which is one reason I like the book so much. He throws in lots of little gems on the side, like an electromechanical implementation of UUCP, complete with bang paths. And dope-tech derived crab suits, hoo-boy. As tense and tight as it is, the tale delivers a marvelous mayhem-filled action climax that I found myself envying.
The setting and descriptions are vivid and beautifully imagined. I got the sense that I would be flossing bits of Perdition out of my teeth every night; “gritty” doesn’t quite cover it. The character arc is very well done, and revolves around a pair of extremely strange sisters who really know how to get under Dante Blackmore’s skin. And then there’s this…cat. The reveal is gradual and subtle. I didn’t solve the mystery before I was supposed to. Saying a whole lot more would require getting into some serious spoilers, so I’ll stop now.
As I hinted above, genres and categories fail us here. Brass and Steel: Inferno is a steampunk weird western with a certain amount of horror. Is it a zombie story? Depends on your definition of “zombie,” and if by the term you mean things like The Walking Dead, no and hell no. I guarantee you, it’s unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. $2.99 on Kindle. Paperback $16.95.
I’ve been low-energy for a month or so, following the worst chestcold I can recall. Still coughing a little bit; still low-energy. I’m working up the nerve to write a a series on health insurance that will doubtless infuriate everyone, but since I’m also furious, I guess it factors out. Stay tuned.
HBO is making no friends with their current stunt, which was to harrass a 13-year-old girl for posting a painting entitled “Winter Is Coming.” The painting has nothing whatsoever to do with Game of Thrones, as any fool with three brain cells could tell. Granted, it may be like me giving up whisky for lent, but it’ll be a cold day in hell before I ever give HBO a nickle. I’m a little surprised this hasn’t gone more viral than it has; give it a hand if you can.
Why did we move to Phoenix? Lots of reasons, but this recent video set from Montreal is the biggie: Frozen water liquefies on compression, greatly reducing the coefficient of friction. In simpler terms, when it snows, heavy stuff runs into other heavy stuff, and makes lots of broken stuff, including (in this case) a snowplow trying to stuff a police car into the hind-end of a city bus.
And here’s the reason we didn’t move to North Dakota, not that that was ever a possibility. Hell, I’ve already done my time in Chicago.
We’ve just seen the steepest drop in global temps since record-keeping began, almost certainly due to the end of the near-record El Nino we’ve been having. A temperature spike is not climate. It’s weather. What El Nino gives, La Nina takes away.
SF writers, heads up: Here’s one of the best sites I’ve ever seen on advanced rocket tech, much of which was completely new to me.
Articles like these can get tiresome if you’re not an enthusiast, but I continue to post them because we need to break people of the government-forged assumption that fat is bad for you. Eating more fat may help you lose weight, depending on the specifics of your metabolism. It certainly did for me. That said, making universal statements is impossible because of individual differences in human beings. As I said in my metadiet picobook, you are the experiment. Do the science.
And another: Butter won’t hurt you. Margarine could kill you. New science shows animal fats to be harmless, but when you get to the end, read carefully: The supposed health experts in the UK simply reject the science out of hand, because to do otherwise would require them to admit that they’re wrong. Experts never do that, because if they did, it would mean that they’ve been fake experts all along. (Thanks to UK reader Dermot Dobson for the link.)
I call this sort of thing a sarcalisticle, and here’s one about the Republic (not the state) of Georgia. I’m interested in Georgia because it’s the world center of medical bacteriophage research. There may be a local-color thriller in that, involving a near future in which we’re confronted by a bacterial plague that defies all antibiotics. I hadn’t given any thought to actually going there, but I admit, the pictures make it look pretty good. Lonely Planet has more photos and additional information.
Here’s yet another way that Obamacare is screwing patients: Insurers publish lists of in-network providers, and those lists are often hideously inaccurate. There are rules governing directory accuracy, and those rules are rarely enforced. My solution: Require providers to remain on a network list for five years after signing up for it, and pull the licenses of providers who refuse to treat patients who are in-network according to the current directory. Better, fine insurers heavily (I’m talking many millions of dollars per error) for leaving errors in their directories. Better still: Forget networks (which are just back-door care rationing anyway) and go back to the days of “any willing provider.”
Narrow networks can be so narrow that for some patients, care is impossibly far away. To me, this is serious insurance fraud. Somebody should do hard time. I nominate Jonathan Gruber.
Although I generally don’t do politics, ESR published a brilliant essay about the recent election that I think needs to be read in its entirety by both sides, keeping in mind that he is not a Republican. (Neither am I; there are such creatures as political independents in the world, really. In fact, I’m pretty sure that independents decided the recent election.)