Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

sf

Daywander

CornRoastJeffCarol1969-500Wide.jpg

Last Thursday was 45 years since the magical night I met Carol. The earth moved for both of us; we just didn’t know what it meant yet. I was walking into walls for weeks thereafter. Carol, being generally more sensible, was determined not to lose her head, but she could tell almost immediately that I was, well, different. How many other boys would set up a home-made 100-pound telescope in her driveway to show her the stars? As it happened, I won her with science, and she won me the same way. I’ve told the whole story here and won’t recap, except to say that my father was right: Love grows out of friendship. There really isn’t any other way to do it, unless you’re willing to settle (as so many seem to) for mere infatuation.

On July 31, 2019 it’ll be 50 years, and that is gonna be a party and a half.

_…_

Two Readers - 500 Wide.jpg

I jumped into e-readers fairly early, back in January 2007, with the original Sony PRS-500. It put me off e-ink for another seven years. I read a fair number of books with it, but the display only really excelled in direct sunlight. Since I read in a comfy chair under lamps that aren’t always as bright as I prefer, the gadget’s lack of contrast made me nuts. I soon went back to reading ebooks on IBM’s flawed but prescient X41 Tablet PC Convertible, which I used (generally for nothing else) until I bought a Nook Color at the beginning of 2012.

Fast forward to yesterday. (Now there’s a book title!) I came back from the mailbox at a dead run, with my new Kindle Paperwhite clutched tight in my right hand. Seven years is a long time in this business. I should have guessed that e-ink would improve. Optimistic as I am, I would have guessed short. The display is fantastic, in part due to seven years’ improvement in e-ink technology, and in part to the fact that the Paperwhite’s display is illuminated to keep it from depending completely on incident light. As with tablets and smartphones, you can actually read it under the covers in the dark. No flashlight required. (See above, which doesn’t do justice to the actual contrast between the two displays.)

Amazon has the ebook thing figured out: Make the products good, cheap, and effortless to buy. I had the Paperwhite out of the box for probably three minutes before I went online (through Wi-Fi; my unit does not have cell network capability) and bought two books in less than thirty seconds: Chuck Ott’s new novel The Floor of the World , and the Dover collection Oscar Wilde’s Wit and Wisdom . I’ve been a Nook guy for a couple of years, but that may change. We’ll see, as I explore the Paperwhite over the next few weeks.

Why did I buy yet another ebook reader? The Nook Color is actually pretty damned good, and my Transformer Prime is even better, at least for sideloaded books. However, I’m about to begin formatting my back catalog as ebooks, and I need to be able to test Kindle books (especially the newish KF8 format) on a real Kindle.

_…_

ESR recently posted a blog entry that won’t make him many friends in conventional SF publishing, but he’s on to something: We may be overstating the influence of tribal politics in the current SF culture wars. There is a huge difference between saying that characterization and literary writing are valuable, and insisting with rolled-back eyes that they’re all that matter. You know my perspective, at least on what defines SF: It’s the ideas. (Note the point that I make in the last comment; to that extent, I agree with ESR and did so a whole year before he made the point. I take my thiotimoline every morning, like all good hard SF writers should.)

Now, I am not taking up the character of Oscar Wilde in The Molten Flesh as a mere shortcut to literary acceptance. I have reasons, and I’m starting to think I need to explain those reasons fairly soon. Don’t worry; my intent is to stuff that yarn so full of ideas that they spill out onto the floor when you open it. It’s just what I do.

_…_

Finally, if any of you have any impressions or tips on Google Hangouts, I’d like to hear them. I’m about to implement virtual meetings for the Front Range Bichon Frise Club, and Hangouts looks like my best bet so far. (Skype has been off the table for over three years.)

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • The forms are in place. The new roadbase fill has been leveled and compacted, and the rebar laid. Concrete should be here in less than an hour. Damn, we’re ready.
  • Here’s a concise (and hilarious) summary of everything wrong with science journalism, which is (alas) pretty much everything.
  • If the human mind can’t be modeled, it can’t be emulated. Which makes me wonder what sort of non-human intelligence we may be able to create computationlly, and whether we’d recognize it as intelligence if we did.
  • One of my very favorite scientists, the Vatican Observatory’s Dr. Guy Consolmagno, said four years ago that if aliens come to Earth and ask to be baptised, the Church would be happy to do it–but only if they asked. There are theological questions here: Would all aliens be subject to original sin? Would each world have its own Incarnation? James Blish explored this a little (if in a rather 50s way) in A Case of Conscience . Now Pope Francis has apparently reiterated it on the Vatican news site.
  • Students remember lectures better when they take notes in longhand. I’ve noticed this effect myself, and it’s real. The article suggests that writing notes longhand requires you to process information before writing it down, but that’s true of keyboarding as well. I admit I don’t take a lot of longhand notes anymore, but it’s also true that keyboarding and presenting aloud seem to use entirely separate parts of my mind. (I tried to write a story once by dictating into Dragon Naturally Speaking…and it just didn’t work.)
  • In crafting parody, I’ve run afoul of Poe’s Law more than once. Far too many people are so dumb they can’t detect hit-you-with-a-shovel sarcasm when they see it. (Thanks to Jim Mischel for the link.)
  • I just ordered this. Will review when I’ve had a chance to devour and digest it. Fat has certainly been good for me, judging by my weight and blood numbers since I stopped fearing it.
  • Coffee is good for eye health. Isn’t it?
  • Wine is a lot more complicated than you probably thought, and a whole lot less romantic. Nay, it’s industrial, almost…urban.
  • And still more reasons to view so-called studies with extreme caution. If you want to pass off an agenda or some sort of ideological/political/hate campaign, the best way to do it these days is hang a sign on it that says, “Trust me! I’m Science!” (Thanks to Damon Smithwick for the link.)
  • And if you’ve ever used a graph to try to prove something, this may give you pause. (Thanks to Roberta Crownover for the link.)

Jiminies, Like Dust

Just about everybody in the free world was disgusted by this news story, which describes a 15-year-old Pennsylvania boy with learning disabilities who was arrested and threatened with a felony for recording a video of several bullies who were taunting him. Go back and read that again. The school did nothing to discipline the bullies, but wanted to make a felon of the victim. The Wrath of Net then fell upon the worthless school, and without admitting what they’d done, they were kind enough to let the vicious, special-needs student slide. For filming the bullies who were tormenting him.

What the hell is going on here?

My first thought was that the bullies were school sports heroes. We inexplicably idolize jocks, and cut them a great deal of slack even when they’re being insufferable jerks. Ending team sports in schools would go a long way toward eliminating this problem, as I’ve suggested before. Well, I thought about it a little more and changed my mind. No, there’s more at stake here. Much more. And this is one time where I could have predicted it 22 years ago, but didn’t. My bad.

Back when I was editing PC Techniques/Visual Developer I wrote a number of editorials describing my vision of the computing future. I scored a few hits and a fair number of misses. I pretty much predicted Wikipedia in 1994. In 1992 I also predicted wearable computing, in the form of the Jiminy, a lapel-pin computer with 256 cores and 64 TB of storage. The Jiminy has imagers, and enough storage to record literally weeks of video. And all I could think to do with it is create a P2P network for passing queries around.

Silly boy. Readers tut-tutted my failure of imagination, and in the next issue of PC Techniques I went far beyond the Jiminy, and in an essay called “Computers, Like Dirt” I postulated free-range imaging nanocomputers the size of dirt particles. I don’t have that editorial OCRed and laid out yet, but here’s the last 200 words:

“Naked” nanocomputers will certainly have their uses. Imagine a device the size of a particle of dirt with one face an image sensor. The rest of the device is a bucket-brigade image storage system that stores millions of images, clocking in a new one every second, or minute, or hour, in effect taking “movies” lasting hours, days, or years. Now imagine untold trillions of these little camcorders released into the environment and carried by the winds to every corner of the earth.

No matter where you go, the very dirt on the street is taking your picture. Even in your own home, the dust that Mr. Byte tracks in watches your arguments, your deceits, literally your every move, at 5000 X 5000 resolution.

Want to solve a crime? Go back to the murder site and dig a thimbleful of dust from several points, and you’ve got millions of movies of the murder as it happened. Rob a bank and the dirt on the floor convicts you. Cleanliness is statistical; no matter how clean an environment, the dust is there somewhere.

Nanocomputers could make it impossible to commit crimes of any sort undetected…or to keep secrets of any kind at all. Virtue imposed by the dust on the wind: How’s that for an endpoint to the evolution of computing?

Scared yet? I wasn’t back in 1992…probably because I assumed I’d be dead long before anything like this came about. But now we’ve got Google Glass, dashcams, copcams, and lots of other mechanisms that basically do nothing but sit around taking pictures all…the…time.

This is what the schools are afraid of. And as much a critic as I am of knuckleheaded public school administrators, I can almost feel their pain here. Nearly everybody has some bitch about our schools and colleges, all of them different, but every one a complaint. The schools are afraid we’ll sue them for doing something, or doing nothing, where “nothing” and “something” embrace everything. Nor are lawsuits necessary. If thousands of students each with hundreds of friends begin to engage in Internet vigilantism, the schools cannot help but lose, and lose big. If every student has a Jiminy on their lapels and a legal right to take pictures of everything that goes on around them, there will be no dodging administrator or teacher misfeasance or malfeasance. Even if the schools get such things outlawed (which they will desperately try to do, and in some places like Pennsylvania they already have) illicit videos of bullies and misbehaving admins or teachers will reach the Net and thus become eternal. Education as a whole would change radically.

As would a lot of other things, few of which I (or anyone else) can predict. I may leave it to your imagination. I will go out on a limb and postulate a quieter, more deliberate, and much more polite sort of world, because no behavior could ever be reliably hidden. I doubt it’ll happen while I’m still around, but by Jiminy, we’re moving slowly but inexorably in that direction. Better behave, guys–because everybody will be watching.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

The Primacy of Ideas

One of my SF teachers, a brilliant man whom I respect very highly, said something once that I still don’t understand: “In the end, what people will remember about your fiction are the characters.” This was in the context of an intense discussion about character creation, but it seems extreme to me. In some sorts of fiction, sure. What I remember about Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March is Augie March.

Or is it?

Sure, I remember Augie. But I, too, am an American, Chicago-born. A great deal of what I remember about The Adventures of Augie March is depression-era Chicago, and how it shaped Augie’s character. Without Chicago, there wouldn’t have been anything particularly memorable about Augie himself. I bring this up because I’m encountering more and more new writers who seem to think that ideas don’t matter in SF and fantasy. Characters are the whole story. Everything else is backdrop. That simply isn’t true, and I think it’s time for a little pushback.

Here’s how I see it: The two essential elements in any story are characters and context. Without characters, context is narration. Without context, characters are soap opera. The magic happens when you rub one against another.

In mainstream fiction and real-world genres like romance and mystery, you don’t create your context so much as select it from a huge menu of known placetimes and cultures, like Chicago in 1933, modern-day Manhattan, or Amish country in the 1950s. There’s some tinkering around the edges, but for the most part you pick a well-documented placetime and turn your characters loose in it. If you’re a good writer, entertaining and insightful things will then happen, and your readers will come back for more.

It gets interesting when you switch from real-world genres to SF and fantasy: You can then create your own contexts. World-building is (as I like to say) a spectrum disorder. You can build a little or a lot, or go nuts and create entire worlds and societies from whole cloth.

To do that, you need ideas.

For good or ill, I’m an ideas guy. It’s just how I think. Furthermore, I have a hunch that ideas are in fact what people actually remember about good SF and fantasy. Really. C’mon, when was the last time you heard somebody ask, “Hey, what was the name of that story in which a callow young man is jolted out of ordinary life and with the help of an ironic sidekick finds unexpected strengths and talents that allow him to defeat evil in ways that change him forever?” No, you hear questions like this: “What was the name of the story that had an FTL communicator in which every message ever sent, past, present, and future, is gathered into a beep at the beginning of every message?” (I know the answer, and if you’re serious about SF you should know it too.)

When I read SF, I want to see cool ideas. When I write SF, I feel a responsibility to deliver them. It’s not just about having rivets. It’s about having rivets that nobody’s ever seen before. Is it silly to love the rivets? Well, I’ve gotten several fan letters about the wires in The Cunning Blood. The novel centers on a prison planet in which microscopic nanomachines seek out and disrupt electrical conductors, supposedly keeping the prisoners from developing electrical technologies. Well, the prisoners make non-disruptable wires by filling hoses with mercury. When your rivets start getting fan mail, I think it’s fair to assume that you’re on to something.

This sort of idea-centric story isn’t for everybody, but there are a lot of people for whom it’s the heart and soul of fantastic literature. The challenge is to use clever ideas to draw out characters that grow, change, and learn. I’ll freely admit that I’m still better at ideas than at characters. However, I’m aware of the issue and I’m throwing a lot of energy into the character side, now that I’m finally out of my teens and into my sixties.

I’ll grant the “cowboys on Mars” objection, in which an ordinary situation is dropped without modification into an exotic locale and called SF. However, it’s just as bogus to say, “Nobody cares about your starships,” when the starships are in fact a key part of the story’s context. Jack Williamson’s definition of stories as “people machines” is correct but incomplete: To have a people machine you need the machinery. Without that machinery, you have “white universe syndrome” and your story collapses into soap opera. You can choose your context from a menu, or you can build it. Either way, you need that context to make characterization meaningful.

I’ll get myself in trouble here for going further and suggesting that a story’s settings and ideas can be entertaining and sometimes dazzling, even when its characters are thinner than we’d like. That’s not an excuse but simply a fact of life. Do we remember Ringworld because of Louis Wu? Or do we remember it because of, well, the Ringworld?

As I prefer to put it: Ideas will get you through SF stories with no characters better than characters will get you through SF stories with no ideas.

That said, have characters. Have context. Rivet them together so well that both your characters and your rivets get fan mail. Then, my friend, you will have arrived.

Odd Lots

  • Yes, I’ve been away from Contra for longer than I’d like, and the Odd Lots have been piling up. Some of that away was necessary for my sanity, and was spent by the pool at a resort in Phoenix, where Carol and I discussed things like the wonder of a single-celled organism that is 10 cm long. The secret appears to be evolving superior organelles. Bandersnatchi, anyone?
  • While I was gone, someone released a new OS for the Raspberry Pi: The Pidora Remix. It’s basically Fedora for the Pi. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ll flip another SD card out of the drawer soonest and burn an image. Man, you have to run like hell just to stay in one place in this business.
  • The Raspberry Pi’s main competition, the BeagleBone, now has a 1 GHz ARM Cortex A8 version that ships with a Linux 3.8 kernel. BeagleBone Black supports the Linux Device Tree, which does a lot to decouple hardware details from the kernel. Looks terrific–now all it needs is an installed base.
  • I noticed a system resource draw-down when I had iTunes installed on my old and now electrocuted quadcore. The software took a lot of cycles and memory, even when it didn’t appear to be doing anything. The discussion has come up on Slashdot. (The poster also mentioned Rainmeter, which I tried once and found…ok.) I try to run a lean system here, and I frown on things that want services, tray icons, and 15% of my cycles all the damned time. (The Dell Dock does precisely that. For showing a row of icons. Sheesh.)
  • Amazon is setting up a new markeplace for short fiction, with a twist: It offers to share revenues on fan fiction with the authors of the original items. It’s unclear how many authors will accept that, but I would, like a shot. (I guess all I’d need are some fans.) In truth, Jim Strickland and I talked in detail some years back about opening up the Drumlins World to all authors who’d care to tell a story there, without even asking for money.
  • Clinical depression may be linked to sleep cycles, which appear to have a genetic basis. How to fix this is unclear, but I’ll testify that depression in the wake of losing Coriolis laid waste to my sleep habits for a couple of years. (Thanks to Jonathan O’Neal for the link.)
  • The Man Who Ploughed the Sea may soon be mining it…for uranium. I’d cut to the chase and just mine it for gold, so I can buy more ytterbium for my Hilbert Drive. Alas, there’s less gold in the oceans than we thought (1 part per trillion) and not much more ytterbium (1.5 parts per trillion) so maybe I should just extract the uranium (3 parts per billion) and make yellow pigments to sell on Etsy.
  • I’m not sure I buy this, but it’s an interesting speculation: That the Younger Dryas cold snap was triggered by a smallish asteroid that crashed…in Lake Michigan. Click through for the maps if nothing else. My favorite Great Lake is deeper and more complex than I thought.
  • Save the apostrophe’s! (From a fate worse than dearth…)
  • And save us, furthermore, from new Microsoft technology that counts people in the room watching your TV. Because having more than one person watching a TV show or movie rental is…is…stealing!
  • 3-D printing is still in the stone age (and the Old Stone Age at that) but if we don’t allow berserk patent law to strangle the kid in its crib, wonderful things will happen once 3-D printers are no longer CNC glue guns. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • I’m starting to think that 3-D printers like that will soon make one-off repro of small plastic parts like the ones at the center of kites practical. I guess the challenge is somehow getting the precise shape of the part into a file. If I weren’t trying so hard to be a novelist I would probably have a 3-D printer already. For the moment I’m glad I didn’t jump as soon as I otherwise might have.
  • Speaking of CNC…and guns: Plastic guns are dumb, dangerous, ineffective, and basically a stunt that seems designed (probably in Autocad) to make politicians say stupid things and make enemies. The real issue is cheap, portable CNC machines capable of cutting metal. That horse is out of the barn and beyond the horizon.