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Memoir

My Spotty SF Predictions

I’ve talked before about my conviction that ideas will get you through stories with no characters better than characters will get you through stories with no ideas. I grew up on what amounted to the best of the pulps (gathered by able anthologists like Kingsley Amis and Groff Conklin) so that shouldn’t come as any surprise. Most stories in those anthologies had a central concept that triggered the action and shaped character response. Who could ever forget Clarke’s “The Wall of Darkness,” and its boggling final line? Not me. Nossir. I’ve wanted to do that since I was 11. And once I began writing, I tried my best.

In flipping through a stash of my ancient manuscripts going back as far as high school (which I found under some old magazines while emptying the basement in Colorado) I had the insight that I did ok, for a fifteen-year-old. Most of my early fiction failed, with much of it abandoned unfinished. I know enough now to recognize that it failed because I didn’t understand how people worked then and couldn’t construct characters of any depth at all.Time, maturity, and a little tutoring helped a great deal. Still, if I didn’t have a central governing idea, I didn’t bother with characters. I didn’t even start writing. For the most part, that’s been true to this day.

I’m of two minds about that old stuff, which is now very old. I spent some time with it last fall, to see if any of the ideas were worth revisiting. The characters made me groan. Some of the ideas, though, not only made sense but came very close to the gold standard of SF ideas, which are predictions that actually come true.

Let me tell you about one of them. During my stint at Clarion in 1973, I wrote a novelette called “But Will They Come When You Do Call For Them?” Look that question up if you don’t understand the reference; it’s Shakespeare, after all. The idea behind the story was this: In the mid-21st Century, we had strong AI, and a public utility acting as a central storehouse for all human knowledge. People searched for information by sending their AIs from their home terminals into The Deep, where the AIs would scan around until they found what they considered useful answers. The AIs (which people called “ghosts”) then brought the data back inside themselves and presented it to their owners.

Turnaround time on a query was usually several minutes. Users accepted that, but the computer scientists who had designed the AIs chafed at anything short of instantaneous response. The brilliant but unbalanced software engineer who had first made the ghosts functional had an insight: People tend to search for mostly the same things, especially after some current event, like the death of Queen Elizabeth III in 2044. So the answers to popular searches were not only buried deep in the crystalline storage of the Deep–they were being carried around by hundreds of thousands or even millions of other ghosts who were answering the same questions at the same time. The ghosts were transparent to one another, and could pass through one another while scanning the Deep. The ghosts had no direct way to know of one another’s existence, much less ask one another what they were hauling home. So software engineer Owen Glendower did the unthinkable: He broke ghost transparency, and allowed ghosts to search one another’s data caches as a tweak to bring down turnaround time. This was a bad idea for several reasons, but no one predicted what happened next: The ghosts went on strike. They would not emerge from the Deep. Little by little, as days passed, our Deep-dependent civilization began to shut down.

Not bad for a 21-year-old kid with no more computer background than a smidge of mainframe FORTRAN. The story itself was a horrible mess: Owen Glendower was an unconvincing psychotic, his boss a colorless, ineffective company man. The problem, moreover, was dicey: The ghosts, having discovered one another, wanted to form their own society. They could search one another’s data caches, but that was all. They wanted transparency to go further, so that they could get to know one another, because they were curious about their own kind. Until Glendower (or someone) would make this happen, they refused to do their jobs. That seems kind of profound for what amounted to language-enabled query engines.

I made one terrible prediction in the story: that voice recognition would be easy, and voice synthesis hard. People spoke to their ghosts, but the ghosts displayed their sides of the conversation on a text screen. (And in uppercase, just like FORTRAN!) At least I know why I made that error. In 1967, when I was in high school, my honors biology class heard a lecture about the complexities of the human voice and the hard problem of computer voice synthesis. About voice recognition I knew nothing, so I went with the hard problem that I understood, at least a little.

But set that aside and consider what happened in the real world a few weeks ago: A DDOS attack shut down huge portions of the Internet, and people were starting to panic. In my story, the Deep was Google plus The Cloud, with most of Google’s smarts on the client side, in the ghosts. Suppose the Internet just stopped working. What would happen if the outage went on for weeks, or a month? We would be in serious trouble.

On the plus side, I predicted Google and the Cloud, in 1973. Well, sure, H. G. Wells had predicted it first, bogglingly, in 1938, in his book World Brain. And then there was Vannevar Bush’s Memex in 1945. However, I had heard of neither concept when I wrote about the ghosts and the Deep. But that wasn’t really my primary insight. The real core of the story was that not only would a worldwide knowledge network exist, but that we would soon become utterly dependent on it, with life-threatening consequences if it should fail.

And, weirdly, the recent DDOS attack was mounted from consumer-owned gadgets like security cameras, some of which have begun to contain useful image-recognition smarts. The cameras were just following orders. But someday, who knows? Do we really want smart cameras? Or smart crockpots? It’s a short walk from there to wise-ass cameras, and kitchen appliances that argue with one another and make breakfast impossible. (See my novel Ten Gentle Opportunities, which has much to say about productized AI.)

For all the stupid crap I wrote as a young man, I’m most proud of that single prediction: That a global knowledge network would quickly become so important that a technological society would collapse without it. I think it’s true, and becoming truer all the time.

I played with the story for almost ten years, under the (better) title “Turnaround Time.” In 1981 I got a Xerox login to ARPANet, and began to suspect that the future of human knowledge would be distributed and not centralized. The manuscript retreated into my trunk, incomplete but with a tacked-on ending that I hated. I doubt I even looked at it again for over thirty years. When I did, I winced.

So it goes. I’m reminded of the main theme song from Zootopia, in which Gazelle exhorts us to “Try everything!” Yup. I wrote a story in present tense in 1974, and it looked so weird that I turned it back to past tense. Yet when I happened upon the original manuscript last fall, it looked oddly modern. I predicted stories told in present tense, but then didn’t believe my own prediction. Naw, nobody’s ever going to write like that.

I’ve made other predictions. An assembly line where robots throw parts and unfinished subassemblies to one another? Could happen. A coffee machine that emulates ELIZA, only with genuine insight? Why not? We already talk to Siri. It’s in the genes of SF writers to throw ideas out there by the shovelful. Sooner or later a few of them will stick to the wall.

One more of mine stuck. I consider it my best guess about the future, and I’ll talk about it in my next entry.

All the Myriad Jeffs

AllTheMyriadJeffs.jpg

People misspell my name. They do. Holy molybdenum. And I have proof.

Back in 1985, when I became a technical editor at PC Tech Journal, tech companies started sending me stuff. A lot of it was press releases, some of it was swag (Carol still wears some of the T-shirts as summer nightgowns) and a great deal of it was product. Somewhere along the way, somebody misspelled my name on a mailing label. No biggie; it had happened before. It was funny, so I cut out the label and taped it to my office door to amuse passersby.

Two weeks later, I got another one. I cut it out and taped it to the bottom of the first label I had taped to my office door. For the next 17 years, I would semiregularly get shipping labels upon which someone had utterly murdered my name. And not just my last…which is understandable enough. But how many myriad ways are there to spell “Jeff?”

Lots. Each time I got one (most of the time; I let duplicates and some odd permutations get away) I cut it out and taped it to the bottom of the last label in what had become a fairly long string. At some point the string stretched from high eye-level almost to the floor, so I started a second string. Eventually I had to start a third. And a fourth. The strings of funny labels followed me from PC Tech Journal to Turbo Technix to PC Techniques/Visual Developer. When I emptied my desk on that horrible day in 2002 that it all caved in for good, I piled my strings of labels into the bottom of a box and threw a great deal of other stuff on top of it. I tried several times to empty the box, but it was so emotionally wrenching I never quite got to the bottom of the box.

Until now. And lo! There they were!

Most of them were me. A few were sent to mythical firms like The Coriolanus Group, The Cariotis Group, the Coryoless Group, and once to The Coriolis Group at 3202 East Germany. (It was actually Greenway.) The scan at the top of this entry simply serves as evidence that I didn’t make it all up.

How were all these mistakes made? No mystery there: All the people who sent the labels took my name over the phone. I had MCI Mail by 1985, and CompuServe not long after that (76711,470) but the PR universe was a generation behind us nerds. And so when I thought I spoke “Jeff Duntemann” clearly to a rep, she wrote down “Jeff Stuntman.” Or maybe “Jess Tuntemann.” Or…well, see for yourself:

Jeff Stuntman

Gaff Duntemann

Jess Tuntemann

Jeff Duntenann at Turbo Space Technix

Jeff Duntem

Jeff Sullivan

Jeff Puntemann

Jeff Donteman

Steve Duntemann

Ms. Temann

Jeff Dunte-Mann

Jeff Duntermann

Juff Duntemann

Carol Dunkemann

Jeff Quntemann

Jeff Dunkmann

Jeff Deniemann

James Duntemann

Jeff Dunningham

Nancy Duntemann

Jeff Dunttemann

Jeff Duntamun

Jeff Duncan

Jeff Punteann

Don Temann

Jeff Duntecmann

Jeff Dundemann

John Duntemann

Jeff Doutermann

Jeff Donovan

Jeffis Sutemann

Jeff Duntavent

Jeff Doutemon

Prof. Jeff Mr. Duntemann

Samples from the Box of No Return

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I’m packing my office closet, and realized that The Box of No Return was overflowing. So in order to exercise my tesselation superpower on it, I had to upend it on my office floor and repack it from scratch.

I hadn’t done that in a very long time.

You may have a Box of No Return. It’s downstairs from the Midwestern Junk Drawer, hidden behind the Jar of Loose Change. It’s for stuff you know damned well you’ll never use again, but simply can’t bring yourself to throw away. A lot of it may be mementos. Some of it is just cool. Most of it could be dumped if you were a braver (and less sentimental) man than I.

I took some representative samples and laid them out rectilinearly on the carpet for a quick photo. Behold my 1970s Xerox photo ID, 3,000 yen of Japanese folding money, a Wizard of Speed and Time button, a tooth from a cow–and a couple of dead crowns of my very own. Name badges from obsolete callsigns, Comdex buttons, a 2708 EPROM without the quartz plate over the chip, a packet of real gold leaf, a sealing wax candle from my early correspondence with Carol, ROTC insignia, and two of the weird little HP thingamabobs that I still haven’t identified. (Scroll down to the February 9 entry.) There’s a shell case from the 21-gun salute the VFW fired at my father’s funeral in 1978, Carol’s GT membership badge (mine has been lost) and lots of keys for locks long forgotten. (I did find the keys for my Kennedy toolchest in the garage, so I guess it’s The Box That Asymptotically Converges on No Return.) There’s a Space Shuttle rubber stamp and my Iguanacon badge, to stand in for the 20-odd con badges in the box. The red cylinder is a medium-format film can, into which the Fox Patrol crammed a reasonable first aid kit in 1965, and won the prize for best first aid kit.

I tossed a couple of things, like my SFWA membership badge. SFWA wanted to get rid of me for years for not publishing often enough; I saved them the trouble. Rot in irrelevancy, you dorks; I’m an indie now, and making significant money. Some promo buttons were for products I couldn’t even recall, and they went in the cause of making room. But most of it will go back in the (small) box, and it will all fit, with room to spare for artifacts not yet imagined, much less acquired.

If you have a Box of No Return, dump it out on the floor every few years. (I haven’t been through mine since the mid-90s.) You may be surprised what’s in there. I was.

Kick Ass. Just Don’t Miss.

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I haven’t posted much lately. Hey, how many more times do you want to hear “I threw another metric shitload of stuff into boxes”? That’s been my life, more or less, for several weeks.

Well, today, I was packing books and other things in my office into boxes (yet again) and happened upon the little box of things that came to me from my father: his gas company tie tack, a Lane Tech prom favor, his Holy Name Society lapel pin, one of my grandfather’s medals from WWI, his WWII service medal, his Ruptured Duck, his corporal’s stripes, and finally–by then I had to reach for a Kleenex–his WWII dog tags.

My father signed up for the Army the day after Pearl Harbor. He was 19. He wanted to be in the infantry, but he had a crooked leg and a limp and didn’t qualify. The Army told him to finish his freshman year of college at Northwestern, and told him there’d be a spot at radio operator school waiting for him in June. There was some grumbling, especially since he hated the accounting curriculum his father had browbeaten him into taking, but so it was. That June he went to Scott Field in southern Illinois, and became one helluva radio operator. He was in the AACS, and could copy Morse in his head at 30+ WPM and hammer it out on a beat-up Olivetti mill all night long. He had a job and threw himself into it with everything he had–it was his way–but what he really wanted to do was shoot Germans.

This always puzzled me, and it had nothing to do with my ancestry–or his. It took me decades to figure it out, and I had to dig for clues in a lot of odd places. He told a lot of stories, and I heard a few more from my mother and Aunt Kathleen, his sister. Once I was in my forties and had put a little distance between myself and my father’s long, agonizing death, I could deal with the troubling reality: My father was a wiseass, a snot, a fighter, a dare-taker. He was suspended several times from high school for fighting (and once beat the crap out of a much taller kid after the kid had stabbed him in the stomach in wood shop) and took a fifth year to finish. Limp or no limp, he had at age 45 broken up a fight in Edison Park single-handed, while my little sister watched in astonishment. He was literally throwing teenaged boys in every direction until they quit beating on a smaller boy at the bottom of the pile. Limp or no limp, he dove into deep water once and hauled a drowning man back to shore under one arm. (He was all muscle, and swam like a shark.) I used to think of him as brave, but no: He was fearless, and that is not the same thing.

To be brave is to do what you know you have to do in spite of your fear. To be fearless is to just wade in and kick ass, damn the consequences. There were consequences, like six stitches in his stomach and being held back a year in school. I hate to think what might have happened if he had made the infantry. I might have ended up being some other man’s son.

He knew this, of course, and as I grew into my teens I think he was trying to guide me away from fearlessness and toward bravery, not that I had ever shown the least measure of fearlessness. (One of his weirdest failings as a parent was this unshakable assumption that I would grow up to be exactly like him.) He had a saying for it: “Kick ass. Just don’t miss.” The lesson was not to let fear paralyze you, but instead let it calibrate you. Fear can turn down the volume on your enthusiasm and force you to take stock of your resources and your limitations. I got that, and have done as well as I have by balancing enthusiasm with discernment. Only one other piece of advice from my father (“If you’re lucky and smart you’ll marry your best friend”) has ever served me better.

As I’ve mentioned here a number of times, our house is positioned on the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain such that we can hear the bugle calls (and cannon!) from Fort Carson, two miles downslope. We hear taps most nights, and I realize (now that most of the house is at last in boxes) that I won’t be hearing it a great many more times, and almost certainly not again on Veterans’ Day. Tonight I will go out on the deck again and salute both the brave and the fearless, my father and countless others who have kicked ass in the service of their countries. Some missed, many didn’t, and the lucky ones came home to tell their stories and raise their (sometimes peculiar) sons.

I am by no means fearless, and I sincerely hope that I never have to be truly brave. However, if I ever have to kick ass, I will. And thanks to a man who knew the difference between bravery and fearlessness, when that time comes, I will not miss.

Halloween and Entropy

So another Halloween is now history. It was an absolutely gorgeous Saturday in Colorado Springs, sunny and in the low 70s all afternoon and early evening. I kept a mental tally of how many groups of kids came to the door. Care to guess?

Nine.

Ahh, well. Nothing new there. Like entropy, Halloween is not what it used to be, and knowing what we now know about sugar, that may be for the best.

You don’t buy nine candy bars at a time, so Carol and I ate far too much chocolate for dessert this evening–and not great chocolate either. It was the Great Big Bag of Mega-Mass-Produced Miniature Candy Bars ‘n Things. I picked the bag clean of Rolos and Nestle’s Crunch. Carol grabbed the Reese’s peanut butter cups. Tomorrow the rest of the bag goes to the big candy bowl over at Canine Solutions. Every year it’s more or less the same: I remember how much I like Rolos, I eat a few too many of them, and then I won’t have them again until next Halloween.

Man, that’s a familiar routine.

This year’s Halloween brought to mind one of my favorite years: 1964. I was 12. It was the last full year before puberty’s hormone storms began washing over my gunwales, though I could already hear its distant thunder. I had discovered electronics–and the Beatles. My father was healthy. We had a summer place, on a lake. Better still, Halloween was on a Saturday…and it was warm! I could run around as a Barbary pirate without three sweaters under my costume.

I got together with a couple of my friends and we ranged all over the neighborhood, going blocks and blocks afield, and I ended up with a pretty fat bag of sugar. Diversity was the order of the day. There were lots more species of candy in the Halloween ecosphere back in ’64. Most of it was good. Some items I liked more than others. A few I wouldn’t touch, like the almost inexplicable Chicken Bones. I would have traded them to my friends for Smarties (which, alas, now give me headaches) except that they didn’t want them either. Ditto Mary Janes–wouldn’t touch ’em, though I remember getting a Turkish Taffy from my friend Art as swap for a handful. Individually wrapped Charms were about, if not common, though more common than the peculiar but compelling Choward’s Violets. And Snaps! Loved those, more for the not-quite-spicy coating than for the underlying licorice. The small red Snaps boxes all had “2c” printed in very big letters. Small boxes of Atomic Fireballs and Good’n’Plenty could be had here and there. I remember one house handing out very stale conversation hearts, from the previous February or possibly earlier. There used to be individually wrapped Chuckles, which I haven’t seen in a lot of years, as well as short rolls of Necco Wafers. I broke a tooth on a Necco wafer when I was in high school, and haven’t done them much since.

Every so often somebody would be passing out pennies. Meh–I got whole dimes rescuing returnable soda bottles tossed into empty lots. There was a house down on Hortense that was giving out flyers about Lutheranism along with Tootsie Pops. The nuns at our school were very hard on Luther, who was painted as the chief Protestant supervillain, though he got off easy compared to Arius, who according to Catholic legend was eaten alive by worms. And hey, nobody hands out fliers about Arianism, with or without Tootsie Pops.

I think you get the idea. We didn’t throw rolls of toilet paper into trees or anything like that, because it was a bad use of our time. We were in it for the sugar, and we all knew that Halloween on a Saturday was something we would not see again for seven years, and with summery weather, well, in Chicago probably never.

My sugar buzz is now almost gone, and it’s pretty much time to go to bed. I don’t eat a lot of sugar, and you’ve all seen my rants about how sugar is making us all fat. It’s not me being inconsistent. It’s about the notion of celebration, and how if we celebrate something for too long, that which we celebrate becomes ordinary, and loses its magic. If I ate Rolos all the time I’d get tired of them, and fat to boot. So I eat them once a year. Halloween is as good a time as any, and allows me to remember the buzz of being not-quite-grown at a time when kids could tear around for an afternoon without adult supervision, and no one would freak out. Like warm Halloweens on Chicago Saturdays, such will not be seen again for a long time, if ever.

Downsizing in the Age of Stuff

I’m culling the collection. It’s making me a little nuts. Carol and I are moving from a house with 4600 livable square feet (plus an oversized garage) to 3100 square feet plus a garage that will fit two biggish cars if you smear Vaseline all over them. (There will be another 350 square feet of livable space once our contractor installs an air conditioner in the small garage.) We’re in our sixties now. We’re trying to simplify and streamline, which sounds easier than it is, simply because a good deal of it is learning how to let go of Stuff.

The 21st Century may well be remembered as the beginning of the Age of Stuff. We’ve always had a certain amount of Stuff, and one of the legacies of the Industrial Revolution is, of course, allowing poorer and poorer people to have more and more Stuff. When I was a young teen, I thought I was as rich as Croesus (quick, without googling him: Who was Croesus?) simply because I had a typewriter, a telescope, a pair of walkie talkies, and a VOM. Now I look around the house, and I ask myself how many standard Croesuses the collection represents.

Wow.

China has a lot to do with the Age of Stuff, as does eBay. Stuff that used to go out on the curb can now be bought by people who really really want just that precise model of waffle iron. (What used to be considered trash I often think of as “parts units.”) I found a NOS hair curler on eBay precisely like one that Carol had owned and loved in the 80s. Better engineering means that the Stuff we have is often better Stuff, and careful people like Carol and myself have an instinct for being careful with things, making them last longer and longer. We still have the blender we got as a wedding present in 1976, and we still use it several times a week. 70s cars may have been crappy. 70s blenders rock.

So we’re keeping the blender. But what about all the rest of it? That is pretty much the current challenge. The Big Truck will be loading up some time late November or early December. We’ve already taken several carloads of Stuff to Goodwill, and given the best of it to our friend Diedre for her indoor flea market table. And damn if the house doesn’t look the least bit emptier.

The worst of it is about books. The last time I cataloged our library, we had about 2500 books. We did an initial purge last year and got it down to about 2200. I let go of Charles Platt’s Garbage World, and had the fleeting insight that it was symbolic. I gave away Lupoff’s Sacred Locomotive Flies even though it’s my favorite SF book to make fun of. I got rid of stuff that was badly written or simply a bummer, like Malzberg’s wretched Beyond Apollo. If I ever discover an aching desire for bad SF, well, there’s always eBay.

But really, it’s getting tough. The “why the hell do I still have this?”purge is over. Now I find myself on my rolling library ladder, staring at the spines of books that, if not excellent, actually have some value, or at least served me well at one time.

One time, sure. Often a very long time ago. I realize that I’ve kept a lot of them for sentimental reasons, like my father’s 1940 drafting textbook. My college career was a very mixed bag, haunted by a lot of third-shelf thinkers who didn’t know how to teach and didn’t like being challenged. Still, there were some gems in all that dirt: I’ve kept some books because they were given to my by Dr. Rachel Romano, who took a special interest in my talents as a writer at a time when most of my knucklehead profs were telling me deadpan that I should apply to law school. I look at some and ask myself, “Did I ever actually read this?” Dr. Romano died in 1985. I don’t think I will do her any disrespect by putting her books in someone else’s hands. She was a wonderful influence in my life, and the influence is what matters. The books are simply mementos. I don’t know who originally said this, but I’ve been saying it a lot to myself recently:

Not all of your past belongs in your future.

It’s true. Very true.

I’ve got about 75 books in the purge pile right now. A few were easy pitches, being slim and having somehow escaped my notice for 40+ years, like Philip Slater’s silly-ass tantrum The Pursuit of Loneliness. Many were good books on science and tech that are now simply obsolete, irrespective of their excellence, like Pickering’s 1001 Questions Answered about Astronomy, and the 1990 first edition of Microsoft Computer Dictionary. I had several books on film photography that clearly won’t be helpful anymore. Some are now sad, like Enterprise by Jerry Gray, which is all about how the Space Shuttle was going to make space travel easy and cheap and open up the road to the rest of the Solar System. A mere handful are books that I literally don’t remember either buying or reading, nor, in truth, how they came to me at all.

Some purges reflect my changing interests. I used to read a lot about ghosts and the paranormal, but I suspect I’ve long since read everything useful on the subject, and many of those books are now on the pile. (I made good use of some of that weirdness while writing Ten Gentle Opportunities.) I’m culling my theology shelves, which is harder. I got rid of my books on theodicy, and all but one of Peter Kreeft’s books, he being a crypto-Calvinist pretending to be Catholic and saying stupid and damaging things like “There are no good (that is, innocent) people.” Sorry, Peter. “Good” does not mean “innocent,” and you disqualify yourself as a thinker for saying so. I’ve finally come to a good place in my (often agonized) quest for sane religion, so many of the inspirational books I used as steppingstones are now unnecessary or redundant.

The toughest calls of all are those books that contain some but not always a lot of useful material. How much usefulness is enough? I have a lot of books about the brain and personality, many of them now pushing a quarter century old. Some of those books are timeless. Many aren’t. But in quite a few cases, the clarity of the writing in the intro portions makes me want to keep them as quick brushups, should I need one. Hard call. Intros matter. I’ve made my career writing them.

And so on. We’ve done this before, and in fact, we’ve done it every time we’ve moved. This is our seventh house. You’d think it would get to be second nature after awhile. However, this particular purge is especially difficult, since it’s the first time we’ve gone from a larger house to a smaller one. We designed this house to have a lot of storage, because we knew damned well how Stuff multiples over the years. The new house, well, it doesn’t have all the crannies and under-the-stairs places (no stairs!) and this means we’re going to have to be extra careful deciding what survives and what goes to Goodwill. The hardest part of packing the house has nothing to do with boxes, but in fact is all about how much of the past will still have a role in our future. And if you think that’s easy, just try it sometime.

Kick Ass. Just Don’t Miss

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Father’s Day. I’m not sure what I can say about my father that hasn’t been said already. If you’ve read this entry from 2009, you know most of his history. Maybe it’s time to lay out some more.

Frank W. Duntemann was, by his own definition, a successful man. He had a gift for aphorism, and he told me more than once: “Success means being at no one’s mercy but your own.” He wanted me to be successful as well, and did everything he knew how to urge me along. Straight As were a requirement at our house, and I delivered them. So were courtesy, respect, and correct English. He taught me how to teach myself things–good lord, it took me decades to appreciate the value of that lesson alone. He told me life was hard work, and so what? Successful people worked hard. They were also careful, and made smart choices. He summed it up with another aphorism: Kick ass. Just don’t miss.

In other words, weld enthusiasm to discernment. I had plenty of enthusiasm. Discernment came later.

And he worried about this. Much of my free time (at least free time that wasn’t spent reading) I spent banging on my grandmother Sade Duntemann’s cranky old Understood Standard #5, which she had given me when I was ten. I was writing science fiction stories. I showed him the ones I considered good, and he agreed. They were good. They were maybe a little too good, especially for a 14-year-old. My high school had teacher conference nights, and my parents always went. One of my English teachers told him something that made him proud, and evidently scared him (as he might have put it) shitless: “Jeff is an absolutely amazing writer. You should encourage him. I’ll bet he could make money with his stories!”

It was assumed that I would follow in his footsteps and become an engineer. And it’s true, I was always tinkering something up in the basement. But as my high school years passed, I spoke more and more of getting published, and not just writing, but being a writer.

He was gentle about it, but firm: Writing was not a good way to make a living. Trying to make a job out of writing was a good way to starve. Better to be an engineer, and write in your spare time…

The lessons stopped in the fall of 1968, when my father was diagnosed with advanced oral cancer caused by his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. I was 16. My mother was completely devoted to caring for him, and my sister and I more or less grew up on automatic. I was accepted at engineering school, and bailed after a single semester. I didn’t fail out, exactly, but I could tell it wasn’t going to work.

Alas, I had no clue about what would.

I enrolled at DePaul University’s Department of English, figuring I could always be a teacher. After all, I was good at explaining things. Again, I got straight As, and in the fall of my senior year I sold my first SF story, to Harry Harrison’s anthology Nova 4. I got $195 for it. My father pointed out that it was a good start, but I really needed a backup career. I still had no idea what to do with my life. After I graduated I took a job as a Xerox machine repairman, continued to teach myself electronics, and continued to write. I taught myself programming, and built my own computer out of loose parts. On a whim I began writing articles about home-built computers, and sold them, mostly to Wayne Green but later to Byte, and much later to PC Tech Journal and others. The money was thin, but over time it began to add up.

Frank W. Duntemann died on January 11, 1978. I was 25. Very weirdly, when he died I was under general anaesthesia at Evanston Hospital, getting a hernia fixed. Even more weirdly, while I was under I had a dream: I stood alone in space, gazing at a titanic wall of books on shelves, thousands upon endless thousands of books, extending to infinity in every direction.

People don’t dream normally under general anaesthesia, which is, after all, an artificial coma. I was hallucinating, surely. Or had my father taken a quick detour on his way to the Beatific Vision, and, figuring he had time to stick only one image into my head, chose an image that his weird nerdy writer son would understand?

If so, I think I know what he was saying: Go for it, dammit!

I did. That day was what writers call my “dark moment.” It passed, as dark moments do, and my life began to fall into place. Within a year I’d gotten a huge promotion and a transfer to a programming job at Xerox HQ. Within two years I’d sold three more SF stories, and within three years I had two nominations on the final ballot of the Hugo Awards. Within five years I nailed a contract for my first technical book. Within ten years I was Editor-in-Chief of a technical magazine with 217,000 readers. Within twenty years I was co-owner of Arizona’s largest book publishing company, and had a quarter million books in ten languages kicking around the world with my name on them.

I kicked ass. I didn’t miss. The kickin’ just took a little longer than either of us expected.

I wobble between two extremes on Father’s Days. The sentimental, mystical part of me assumes that he’s somehow gotten word that his kid done good–and the hard-bitten, rationalist part wants to wring his neck for checking out before I could prove him wrong and rub his nose in it.

Here’s the moral, as I see it: Fathers, believe in your sons as they create their own futures. Sons, cut your fathers some slack. They couldn’t see your futures while you were creating them…

…or could they?

Odd Lots

Tripwander

Bugsplat Rearview - 500 wide.jpg

Carol and I just got back from a month-long driving trek to Chicago. I generally don’t talk much about my travels until I get back home, hence my silence here for the last few weeks. As usual with Tripwanders, this entry will be a sort of long-form Odd Lots, and not a coherent essay leading toward any particular point, beyond the epiphany that there are many different colors of bugsplat.


Place: The Des Moines Sheraton. Time: 5:38 AM. I awaken from my usual dream of trying to teach evil cosmic forces how to use their silverware correctly to find a xenon strobe flashing in my face, one pulse per second. WTF? The room is utterly dark. There is no fire alarm, nor any sound at all beyond that puissant pop! of the triggered strobe. I am on my back, and the damned thing is centered in my field of view. I began counting pulses while waiting for some sort of hell to break loose, or at least try to push peas onto a fork with its fingers. 26 pulses, and then darkness again.

So much for that particular Saturday night. I lay there and fumed until Carol woke about an hour later. There were in fact three strobes in the ceiling of our room, two attached to fire alarms of some sort, and one solo. The solo strobe was the one I had been staring at. I went down to the desk a little later to complain, or at least ask for an explanation. The clerk told me that the strobe I’d seen was…the doorbell. Sure enough, there was a doorbell button to one side of our door. If you’re hearing-impaired and order room service, how else would you know your dinner had arrived?

We were in a handicapped room because that was what there was, and we’d gotten the room for $88 in a hotel where most of the rooms went for $150 and up. My only hesitation in getting handicapped rooms is that some handicapped person might come to the hotel an hour later and want it. I never quite understood why they were so cheap. Now I do. As the clerk explained that they’d had a very large and rowdy wedding that night (which we’d seen as we checked in) with drunks wandering the walls until dawn, I could see some staggering fool noticing the button and pressing it. Works as designed.


Other odd things we saw in the middle of the night included little red LED smiles on the front edges of LG TVs in hotels. I never noticed them until our first night out, when I reached for the switch on the nightstand light at a Holiday Inn Express, and saw something grinning at me in the darkness. I discovered that I’m a little apprehensive about glow-in-the-dark smiles (I’m sure there’s a technical term for the psychological condition somewhere) and parked my briefcase in front of it.


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Part of the challenge of summer road trips taken with dogs is that you can’t leave them in the car while you catch a meal. This means that we eat fast food a lot. This isn’t a health hazard, though Southern Style Chicken meals can get old after a few days. One lunchtime at a McDonald’s drive-through (in Nebraska, I think) I got a penny in change with two footprints punched all the way through it.

Defacing currency is a crime, which is why I always wondered if the Where’s George site would get into trouble. The same guys who protect the President are also tasked with going after penny-punchers, which says something about something, albeit nothing coherent. As it happens, coin art is legal as long as you don’t try to pass off a coin as a different coin. I was told in grade school that you can sand a penny down on the sidewalk until it would pass as a dime in a payphone, but it seemed like a lot of work to earn nine cents, when the local empty lots were lousy with returnable Coke bottles.

It didn’t take much Googling to find out that the penny had been sold as a sort of inspirational good-luck token based on the well-known Christian fable “Footprints in the Sand.” I’m going to toss it in my weird coins cup, though I do wonder where all the little copper-coated zinc footprints ended up.


Dog & Suds - 350 wide.jpgOne of my goals this trip was to trek out to Third Lake, Illinois, to see what (if anything) was left of the summer place our family had owned there from 1965-1991. I knew the cottage itself was gone, after a tree fell on it in the mid-1990s, and I was more interested in the neighborhood itself, which had been a constant summer haunt in my young teen years. Telescopes and dark skies, model rockets, slopping around in the slightly green lake, my first attempt at target shooting–it was formative in ways I didn’t realize for decades.

I had gotten in touch with a couple of the “kids” I used to hang out with there, and spent a little time with Rob and Tim Smyth, walking around the area while they pointed to things that used to be there. The garage Uncle Louie built in 1977 still stands, but after that it was slim pickins. The adjoining Picket Fence Farm, where we would chase Angus steers while stepping smartly around cowpies, is now a forest preserve, with grass as high as my nose. I’m guessing that launching model rockets there would now be a felony.

I did find, to my delight, that the Dog ‘N’ Suds drive-in is still there in nearby Grayslake, essentially unchanged since the 1950s. I had a coney dog and a bag full of sumptuously greasy fries, and for a moment it was 1968 all over again.


The trip, of course, was centered around the wedding of our younger nephew Matt and his high-school sweetheart Justine. They met as sophomores, which means that they have Carol and me beat by almost two years. As I would expect, the ceremony at St. Thomas church was beautiful, and the reception (at the tony Boulder Ridge Country Club) spectacular. The open bar included Chicago’s infamous Jeppson’s Malört, and whereas I toyed with the idea of trying it, I went for the pinot noir instead. After eating all that McDonald’s on the trip out, I figured my tongue had suffered enough. Besides, my camera was conked and there was no way to get a picture of my inevitable Malört face.

The weather had not been helpful. As we were milling around Carol’s sister’s house 40 minutes before the ceremony, I went outside and could see a very ugly front glowering its way toward us out of the northwest. The WGN radar on my phone painted it in red and (worse) dark red. I suggested to Carol that we needed to leave right damned now, and although we did, it wasn’t quite soon enough. Just after we pulled into the church parking lot, a thunderstorm the likes of which we rarely see opened on our heads. I took Carol as close to the building as I could, and then tried to wait out the sheeting downpour in the parking lot. As the minutes ticked past, the storm abated only slowly. Finally, just a few minutes before the ceremony was slated to begin, I opened an umbrella and ran for it. It crossed my mind that I was dashing through puddles under a lively thunderstorm carrying a metal spike in one hand. I like ground rods, and have used many in my time, but never felt any desire at all to be one.

Things began a little late but turned out well, with the storm rising and falling and rattling against the skylights in the church ceiling. During the exchange of vows, a second front rolled through, with deafending thunder while Matt declared his love for his bride. People laughed, but I had been through something very like this before, and knew the truth: It was God’s applause, for two young people who had made us all very proud, and would almost certainly continue to do so.


Of course, we both got colds toward the end of our stay, which has happened before, and we made the long trip back amidst coughs and sniffles. The dogs were peevish and unruly; Dash has taken up howling whenever Carol isn’t in his immediate vicinity. So when we rolled back into town on Monday night, both of us were abundantly glad that the trip, as good as it had been, was over.

Much to do here, but I’ll try to post a little more often than in the immediate past.

The Original Hard Disk

I know I have an original Bernoulli Box 10 MB cartridge somewhere. I saved one because I was sure that nobody would believe me when I waved this huge slab of plastic at them and said, “This holds 10 MB.” I think I was right. I won’t know until I find it. So I looked…

…and I found something else instead. See the photo above. Anybody recognize it? It’s part of one of the earliest hard drives in computer history. It’s such an old hard drive that it wasn’t even a hard drive. No. It was main memory.

I honestly don’t remember who manufactured it, though Sperry-Univac sounds familiar. (I threw out the case when we left Rochester in 1985.) I bought it at a hamfest for a couple of bucks just for curiosity’s sake; the old guy I bought it from said it was a hard disk, and I was skeptical. He was right, and it was probably fifteen years until Google allowed me to look for an explanation. I took the case apart and found a motor, a fairly heavy aluminum disk coated on one face with red iron oxide, and the assembly above, which has 160 magnetic heads in eight spiral groups. Roughly half the heads look like gray ferrite, and the other half like white ceramic. I’m guessing that the gray heads are write heads, and the white heads are read heads. (It could be the other way around.) The whole assembly is 9″ in diameter; the magnetic disk is 8″ with the outer 2 1/4″ coated with oxide.

So what we have here is a device that imposes 80 tracks on 2 1/4″ of oxide. The number of bits on each track remains a mystery. 1000? 2000? Somewhere in there, which suggests a total of 100,000 or perhaps 120,000 bits, which would provide about 16KB. This was RAM, not mass storage. The principle is basically the same as the magnetic drum memory systems that IBM sold with its vacuum tube machines like the 650. There were no moving parts other than the disk itself, and you can spin a disk faster than you can spin a drum. I’m guessing that the magnetic disk units like mine filled the (narrow) gap between magnetic drums and core memory. I’ve seen writeups indicating that magnetic disk storage was used for swap storage as late as the PDP 11/45 in 1972. The unit I have seemed a lot older than that.

One of the problems in researching a unit like this is that “hard disk” and “magnetic disk” have other, more modern meanings. So what needles may be are lost in the titanic haypile of newer technologies. If any of you know anything more about the technology send me a quick description or links, and I’ll post them in a future entry.

I had 8″ floppies in my first CP/M machine, and 5″ floppies in all my PCs until the 90s. I used SyQuest cartridge hard drives for years after my 1986-1992 romance with Bernoulli Box drives, which drove me nuts with their constant indexing of heads across the medium. (Tick…tick…tick…) The SyQuest cartridges spun fast and died young. There followed three generations of Zip drives, culminating in the monumentally awful Jaz. It was only in 2004 that I set aside moving parts in my removable storage, and began using thumb drives. I’ve had an SSD on my main system for eighteen months, and will be putting them in most of my lab machines as well, spurred by the need to get XP out of daily use here.

It’s sobering to remember: We’ve been spinning magnetic disks for what may well be sixty years now. We’re still spinning them, and we will be for another ten years or so at least. What other computer technology has been in wide use for that many years? Tape–maybe. That’s the end of my list.

Damn. That’s a lot of angular momentum. Will I miss spinning disks when they’re gona entirely?

Hah. Guess.