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None Of The Above

Anything that doesn’t fit into existing categories

Quo Vadis, Twitter?

Elon Musk just bought Twitter. For 44 billion dollars.

Egad, I could think of several thousand better ways to spend $44B. In fact, I brought the topic up ten or fifteen years ago, in an entry here called “If I Had a Billion.” Funny how I can’t find it now on Duck Duck Go, or I’d post a link. Maybe I just imagined it. Maybe I’ve been canceled. Maybe too many people want to talk about being billionaires and my post is down in the noise. No matter.

So what is the guy actually going to do with his new toy? It’s tempting to think of the acquisition as a shot across the bow of social networking, in essence saying, “You can be bought. You won’t like being bought. So lay off with the censorship already.”

Threats of that sort aren’t his style. My best guess is that he’s going to tweak a lot of noses by focusing on Twitter and allowing real discussions about formerly forbidden topics, like climate, race, COVID treatments, and such–you know, the things that have gotten a lot of people thrown off Twitter in recent years. I haven’t gotten thrown off because I’m careful about what I post. Being careful (and not spending half my life there) means I won’t get a lot of attention. (I will admit that mentioning my books on Twitter always sells a few. Otherwise I might have quit long ago.) I don’t talk about politics. And this is why I have 611 followers, rather than several thousand. Being famous is hard work. And if I’m going to be famous, I’d rather not do it on Twitter.

He could also order his techies to add an edit function to Twitter. Dare we hope?

I’ll hope. I won’t assume. Anyway. He could do a number of things to make the service worthwhile:

  1. Add edit functionality. Ok, that’s too easy.
  2. Expand the size of a tweet to 1,000 characters. Or 2,000? At their current length, tweets are most useful in online fistfights. Real discussion requires more space than that. Give users more space, and the quality of the dicussions almost can’t help but go up. I hope.
  3. Slow down replies and retweets. I’ve written about this here before. The idea is to exponentially increase the time it takes for a given tweet to “go viral.” One reply, instantly. Two, one second. Three, two seconds. Four, four seconds. Five, eight seconds. Etc. This would put a huge damper on Twitter lynch mobs. And one would hope that that the psychotic hotheads who comprise those mobs will get bored and go somewhere else. In their place will be slower, and (with some luck) more rational conversations. Read the entry I linked. I think it would work. I don’t think Mr. Musk will do it.
  4. Eliminate the “blue check” status game. Have one color check (which color doesn’t matter) indicating that the poster has proven that he or she is who they say they are and are not a bot. Require that “checks” use their real names. You’re either real or not real. Twitter has no damned business deciding who is important and who isn’t.
  5. Charge users by the tweet. Really. Retain free memberships, but limit the number of tweets that free memberships can post. Create brackets of paid memberships in which the highest paid memberships can post unlimited tweets, with less expensive memberships allowing fewer tweets. This would probably cut the number of Twitter users in half (if not more) but would bring in enough revenue to make the system pay for itself. And I can’t help but think that the people who would quit would be the people who make the most trouble. The quality of dicussion would almost certainly improve.

That’s what I have so far. One thing that I think would be very useful but I doubt anyone will ever do is create a federation API allowing different social media services to share messages among themselves. Maybe Twitter should become a back-end for systems that want to participate but also want to curate the content that their network allows. In other words, if people on the left want to toss out people on the right, and people on the right want to toss out those on the left, Twitter would take everybody and let individual users choose to follow whomever they please. Let the crazies have their bubbles. Make Twitter the Big, Here-Comes-Everybody bubble.

A system like that would take some thought and some serious work. It wouldn’t be impossible. (There’s something called Mastodon that has gone some distance in that direction, albeit at a much smaller scale.) And what it would create would be infinitely better than what we have now.

G’wan, Elon. Give it a shot. You own it. Now do what you do best, which is…surprising us.

Odd Lots

  • I got caught in an April Fools hoax that (as my mother would say) sounded too true to be funny: That Tesla canceled all plans to produce its Cybertruck. (Read the last sentence, as I failed to do.) I like Musk; he has guts and supports space tech. About his Cybertruck concept, um…no. It looks like an origami, or else something that escaped from a third-shelf video game. The world would go on without it, and he might use the money to do something even cooler, whatever that might be.
  • Oh, and speaking of Elon Musk: He just bought almost 10% of Twitter, to the tune of about $3B. He is now the biggest outside shareholder. This is not a hoax, and I wonder if it’s only the beginning. Twitter is famous for suspending people without explaining what they did wrong, sometimes for things that seem ridiculously innocuous. A major shareholder could put pressure on Twitter’s management from the inside to cut out that kind of crap. It’s been done elsewhere. And boy, if anybody can do it, he can.
  • Nuclear energy has the highest capacity factor of any form of energy, meaning the highest percentage of time that energy producers spend actually producing energy. I knew that from my readings on the topic. What shocked me is that there is in fact an Office of Nuclear Energy under the DOE. I’m glad they exist, but boy, they hide well.
  • The Register (“Biting the hand that feeds IT”) published a fascinating article about how C has slowly evolved into an Interface Definition Language (IDL). C was never intended to do that, and actually does a pretty shitty job of it. Ok, I’m not a software engineer, but the way to build a new operating system is to define the IDL first, and work backwards from there. C is now 50 years old, sheesh. It’s time to start again, and start fresh, using a language (like Rust) that actually supports some of the security features (like memory protection and safe concurrency) that C lacks. This is not Pascal sour grapes. I’m studying Rust, even though I may never develop anything using it. Somehow, it just smells like the future.
  • Drinking wine with food (as I almost always do) may reduce your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. It’s not taken up in the article, but I have this weird hunch that sweet wines weren’t part of the study. Residual sugar is a real thing, and I’m drinking way less of it than I did 20 years ago.
  • People have been getting in fistfights over this for most of a century, but establishing Standard Time year-round may be better than year-round Daylight Savings Time. I’m mostly neutral on the issue. Arizona is on permanent DST and we like it fine. The problems really occur at high latitudes, where there isn’t much daylight in winter to begin with, so shifting it an hour in either direction doesn’t actually help much.
  • There is Macaroni and Cheese Ice Cream. From Kraft. Really. I wouldn’t lie to you. In fact, I doubt I would even imagine it, and I can imagine a lot.
  • Optimists live longer than pessimists–especially older optimists. Dodging enough slings and arrows of outrageous fortune somehow just makes the whole world look brighter, I guess.
  • Finally, some stats suggesting that our hyperpartisan hatefest online has pushed a lot of people out of political parties into the independent zone–where I’ve been most of my post-college life. 42% of Americans are political independents, compared to 29% who are Democrats and 27% who are Republicans. I’m on Twitter, but I don’t post meanness and (as much as possible) don’t read it. And if Mr. Musk has his way with them, I may be able to post links to ivermectin research without getting banned.

The Publishing Problem That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Last week a friend of mine pointed me toward something I might otherwise have overlooked: Fiction editors at big NY imprints are quitting their jobs at a boggling rate. There was evidently a Twitter meltdown back on March 11 about the Big 4 (or is it 3? 5? 2.7343? ) losing editors and not being able to find new ones. The trigger was evidently a junior editor at Tor (the SFF imprint of Macmillan) writing a longish note on why she was quitting. Molly McGhee loved the work and did it well, but there was far too much of it for what she was paid. And so she quit.

She was not alone. This appears to be a trend: Fiction editors at NY imprints are bailing in droves. A number of other articles on the topic have appeared in the days since. (Beware: Google the topic and you’ll find a lot of articles about editors resigning due to racist accusations and other weird things, but that’s all old news, going back to the last years of the oughts. This is something much more recent, and completely different.) People aren’t screaming about racism or sexual assault. It’s all about too much work for too little pay. The New York Times asks, “When Will Publishing Stop Starving Its Young?” (paywalled) What they don’t ask is why they’re starving their young to begin with.

Indeed, there is this peculiar air of mystery hovering like a grim gray cloud over the whole unfortunate phenomenon. Why are the big NY imprints treating their staff so badly? Nobody seems willing to even venture a guess. Question marks buzz around these articles like wasps from a poked nest. Want an explanation? I can give you one, an explanation that none of those articles mentions at all:

Indie authors are eating NY’s lunch.

And their hors d’oerves. Not to mention dinner. And their bottomless bags of Cheetos Suzettes. It’s the publishing problem that dare not speak its name: Basically, Kindle is detroying the NY publishing business model. So far it’s just fiction. Technical nonfiction can be a gnarly challenge for ebooks. But I’ve also read a lot of indie-published textual nonfiction ebooks in the last couple of years. For titles without a lot of diagrams or source code, it’s no greater a challenge than novels. Once you know the tools well, a reasonable text-only ebook can be laid out in an afternoon. (I do it all the time.) It doesn’t take weeks or thousands of dollars of hired help. The NY presses lie like rugs: Ebooks are not as costly to produce as print books. And once produced, there’s no printing costs or warehousing costs. Unit cost for the product is zero. Sure, indies have to pay for freelance editing services, and probably cover artists. I maintain that anyone who can write can lay out their own damned ebooks. Lots of people I know are doing it all the time and have done it for years. The cost of entry isn’t zero, but it’s a lot less than New York City.

A huge part of this is the peculiar business model that has grown up around hardcover editions since WWII. I’ve written about this at some length. We had to cope with it at Coriolis back in the 1990s. We did as well as we did for as long as we did in large part because we were not located in luxury pestholes like New York City. Publishing is a low-margin business. It cannot succeed in the cores of monster cities. Rent is soaring in most large cities. You can’t pay staff enough to afford local rents. These days, a publishing company can be spread out among several small towns, or anywhere Zoom-capable broadband is available. NYC culture is its own worst enemy: Smaller cities don’t have the nightlife that huge urban centers have. People who demand that nonstop nightlife won’t be happy in Des Moines or Omaha–much less Flagstaff. But those are the sorts of places where publishing can thrive in 2022.

Will Molly McGhee move to Omaha? Somehow I doubt it.

This doesn’t mean I don’t sympathize. Big companies need to pay their people well, or staff will quit and start careers in other industries. Amazon has trained its customers to feel that ebooks should not cost more than $9.99, You have to operate somewhere that a $10 ebook will pay your bills. That is not NYC. Or San Francisco. Or Chicago. Or LA. Alas, it probably isn’t Phoenix anymore either, though it certainly was when I created Coriolis in 1990.

There are other issues: Spreadsheets now run traditional publishing. Editor instincts matter a lot less than they did 30-40 years ago. The people who make decisions at big publishers (as a friend of mine said years ago) are people who don’t read books. There is also a sort of near-invisible good-ol-boy/girl network in NY that decides who gets promotions and plum positions. It’s gotten to be more who you know than what you know. Choosing the right parents and getting into Harvard now matter a lot more than talent and hard work.

In the meantime, NY publishers who are short on cash are cancelling recently acquired books and putting more muscle behind their existing midlist. They claim (and lie, as do other businesses) that they can’t find anybody to fill positions of those who quit–and then pile the work of vanished staff on staff who remain. Not hiring people is a great way to save cash, and you can always blame the pandemic, or supply chain problems, or the Russians. (Everybody else does.) Rents are up hugely in the big cities. Editors can’t work for peanuts when rent is caviar.There’s a deadly feedback loop here that I don’t need to describe in detail. Do the math.

New York City is too expensive for book publishers. Really. There is absolutely no reason for publishers to remain there, now in the age of Zoom. The city’s fixed costs are astronomical. To make any money at all, publishers have to keep ebook prices just a hair below hardcover prices. Making ebook prices higher than trade paperbacks is nuts–unless you simply can’t abide the idea of ebooks and are privately terrified that they will drive those essential hardcovers into a relatively limited luxury market. Which they will. And then Boom! goes their business model.

I still see articles online claiming that ebooks never really took off, and indie publishing is a tiny little corner of the publishing world. Tracking indie ebook sales is essentially impossible, so a lot of publishing pundits simply ignore them. If you can’t plug a number into a spreadsheet cell, the item in question might as well not exist. My conversations with indie authors gives the lie to that delusion. They’re making money. Few are making their entire living from indie publishing–but how often did authors make their entire living writing under traditional publishing? Damned few, and only the most famous.

There is middle ground, in the form of small press. Coriolis was a small press, even at our biggest, because, well, everything is smaller than Macmillan. My hunch is that many editors who bail out of the Big Apple may be quietly hunting down jobs at smaller presses in smaller cities. (The editors are not alone.) Enough of that, and the notion of Manhattan Publishing will quietly fade into the background, obscured by the taps of tens of millions of fingers moving to the next indie ebook page.

Progress Report and Excerpt: The Molten Flesh

I’m now about 40,000 words into The Molten Flesh, which is nominally the sequel to The Cunning Blood. It’s a sequel in the broader sense of a story told in the same universe but not focusing on the same characters or planets. The single exception is Sophia Gorganis, who has a cameo in a flashback set a few years earlier than the action of The Cunning Blood. The focus is now on a different nanotech society and device: Protea, a synchronistic combination of the human body and a nanomachine that is present in every part of the body, up to and including the brain. The same general nano/human typography conventions apply: Subvocal human speech to the nanomachine is enclosed in vertical bars. The speech of the nanomachine to its operator is in italics. Those conversations are private; onlookers cannot hear either side.


From The Molten Flesh, Chapter 13

Copyright 2021 by Jeff Duntemann. All Rights Reserved.

Halifax fired its main engines as soon as its shuttle repair bay doors closed behind Hubbardton and sealed. Like everything else about Halifax, the shuttle bay seemed out-of-scale. At least three fourth-generation shuttles could line up side-by-side for repair or storage. Ron eyeballed that in a pinch, it could stuff away five second-gen shuttles.

The lock pumps had the repair bay pressurized in less than ten minutes. Cory Ellis went down the ladder from the shuttle’s lock. Ron jumped. It was hard for the big ship to be in a hurry. Acceleration was only half a gee. The air in the bay still held the flinty scent of bare metal and fresh plastic. “New starship smell,” Ron said, chuckling.

No sooner had the pressure all-clear horn sounded than five crew entered the repair bay at a run. Three men and two women, all young-Ron pegged them at under thirty, a couple of them way under thirty. A reasonable security detail, he supposed.

Ron blinked. The tall blond woman had the captain’s golden galaxy over her heart. The shorter, dark-haired woman had the drivemaster’s braided golden ring. |Something funny is going on here.|

The captain is Bronya Azarova, born in Kraznoyarsk. 27 years old. The drivemaster is Sally Ann Gildea, from Cincinnati. 25. Both are Star Academy graduates. I cannot identify the men with any certainty.

|Neither was in the top ten of her class, or I’d have heard the names. You’d think they’d send someone a little more seasoned to run a starship the size of a small town in Nebraska.|

There’s not much running to be done. The whole point of the fourth generation was to allow AIs to do nearly all of the decision-making. No more human error. Safe.

|I guess Star Academy was one way for a girl to get her ass out of Siberia.|

Ron was bemused but pleased. A more seasoned captain like Sophia Gorganis could have caused a lot more trouble. He walked behind Cory as they approached the detail. When Cory got a few meters from Bronya, the rest of the detail stepped back. Bronya stood her ground.

“Mr. Ellis, what do you think you are doing?” Her accent was pure, her face a blond-framed sneer that suggested contempt painted over terror.

“I’m saving my life and yours.”

Chush sobachya. Give me the keys to the drive.”

Cory tilted his head toward Ron. Ron dug in a pocket and held up the keys like a hand of cards.

Bronya reached into a hip pocket, and pulled out a 9mm sidearm. She stepped around Cory and with both hands aimed it square at Ron’s sternum.

|Mush matrix, full torso. Fast!|

It’s mostly still there. Give me two minutes. Keep her talking.

Cory ducked to Ron’s left. “Bronya! Stand down! What did Star Academy teach you about firearms in a spacecraft!”

She didn’t move. “Ron Uhlein taught me starships are tougher than that. Keys, Mr. Uhlein.”

Ron tucked the keys back into a pocket. The heat of Goop’s rearranging his body was bringing sweat to his forehead. Not ideal, but unavoidable. Keeping her talking might be hampered by his not knowing Russian-but he would try. “I like your style, kid. Come work for me and give 1Earth a spanking. You know damned well what they’ll do to you when you go home without Halifax.” He pointed at her left breast. “You earned that galaxy. I suspect I helped you earn it. I’ll let you keep it. I’ll send you to star systems nobody else has ever been to.”

The pistol quavered in her hands. “Give…me…the…keys.”

“How about revenge? The Canadians stomped your nation and killed several million of your people. They stomped my nation too-and now they’re so scared of us they don’t travel outside the cities. I’ll bet it’s the same in Russia. Let’s you and me put together a new alliance: Rural Russia and rural USA, against 1Earth.”

Bronya licked her lips. “You are a thief and a traitor.”

“I’m a free man.” He took a step forward. “Are you a free woman?”

“I am a citizen of Earth.”

“A planet that’s mostly turned its back on star travel. However it was you got lucky enough to take this monstrosity out of Earth orbit, you’ll never be that lucky again. I’m your last chance to use your galaxy, kid.”

Long seconds passed. Bronya’s face showed torment. Ron kept his hands in his pockets. Close-range slugs would do less damage to a mush matrix in his chest than to his arms and legs.

Then, from Hubbardton, behind them. “Bluster! Fake!”

Ron cursed. He had ordered Alyssa to stay on the shuttle. The girl walked directly toward Bronya, yelling, “Orphan! Forgotten! Lonely! Bitter!”

Bronya is indeed an orphan, and has been since she was fourteen. The matrix is now in place.

Bronya swung the pistol toward Alyssa. No way! Ron jumped. The half-gee fake gravity threw off his aim. He stumbled, his shoulder lowered and aimed at her ribcage. The woman had reflexes; she dodged, spun back and pumped two rounds into his chest before he connected. The kinetic energy of the slugs slowed Ron a little but caused him no pain beyond a strong thumping where the mush matrix absorbed the rounds’ energy. She tried to side-step but not quickly enough. Ron caught her free arm and kicked Bronya’s legs out from under her. She hit the floor ass-first and fired again. The slug went ching! against the metal deck.

“Drop it!” Ron yelled. Bronya, grimacing, tried to swing the pistol back toward Ron. He grabbed her wrist and squeezed hard. “I said drop it!”

She reeked of sweat. “I know what you do! You are a monster!”

“I do what I have to do.” |Pain #4. Thirty seconds’ worth. Go.|

Goop squeezed the neurostimulant into Bronya’s arm. The woman inhaled a ragged breath, and screamed. The pistol hit the steel deck. Ron shoved himself to his feet. Bronya thrashed on the deck, holding one arm in her opposite hand, whimpering between full-throated screams.

The three men from the detail fled the repair bay. Sally Ann stepped backwards several meters, but continued watching. After thirty seconds had passed, Bronya let herself fall flat on her back, breathing quickly, tears smeared across her face. Ron looked her in the eye as he picked up the pistol and tucked it into another pocket. He cupped a hand below his ribs. Goop expelled the spent slugs. Ron reached out his hand and let them fall half-gee gently on Bronya’s chest. “Captain Azarov, I believe you dropped these. Oh…and I withdraw my offer.”

Excerpt: Complete Sentences

5

Three flashlight beams lit the campground road. With Charlene to his right and Marianne to his left, Eric led the way to where the road swung toward the lake and the sand came right up to the crumbling edges of the asphalt. A slow breeze like a soft warm breath came off the lake, heavy with the scent of summer, and gentle water sounds joined with the August cricket song. Charlene’s left hand gripped Eric’s right arm just below the end of his T-shirt sleeve. Her touch was still magical, perhaps moreso because she was putting her weight on his arm whenever she took a step. She could walk because he was there to help. He tried to drive the thought out of his head, but with each tightening of Charlene’s hand on his bare arm, the intoxicating thought returned: She needs me!

The trio walked out onto the beach until they had gone midway across the sand, within several yards of the water. Eric scanned the horizon. “This should be good, right here.”

Charlene squeezed his arm one last time, and pulled herself against him. She tipped her head until her temple touched his shoulder. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“Whatever I can do to help,” he whispered in reply. He looked up again as she drew away. “Turn off your flashlights.” The three lights flicked out, leaving them in darkness.

No one moved nor spoke as their flashlight-dazzled eyes gradually adapted. Above them, in an order Eric had witnessed under many dark Wisconsin skies since he’d been a small boy, the stars were coming out. First, the brightest of the brilliant: Antares, Spica, Vega, Deneb, Altair, all torches of the night. And one more, in their league but not of their kind: Saturn, a steadfast untwinkling pale yellow in the southeast. As his eyes grew more accustomed to the dark, the second-string stars appeared. Eric could name some but not all, and they were everywhere, the framing members of the constellations, not torches but-he grinned-two by fours. Soon after emerged the multitudes of lesser magnitudes, down to the limits of his eyes to discern. Finally, meandering down the sky toward Sagittarius in the south, a river of pale stardust, the Milky Way.

“Wow!” Marianne said to his left. “I’m lost already!”

Charlene tsked. “Nobody’s lost with Eric around.”

“Especially you,” Marianne muttered.

It was a girl thing; Eric guessed that he wouldn’t understand. He shrugged, and knelt beside Marianne. “We’ll start right here. Turn toward the north.” He gripped Marianne’s hand and pulled her around until she was facing the same way he was. He noted that there was no magic in Marianne’s hand, as there was in Charlene’s. “Right over the trees in the north. Look hard. You’ll see the Big Dipper.”

He felt her hand tense. “Yes! It’s there! I see it! It’s really big!”

“Yup. That’s why it’s not called The Medium-Sized Dipper. Now look at the bowl of the Dipper. Find the two stars at its left side.”

“I see them.”

“Now draw a straight line between those two stars, and extend it upward until the line hits another star.”

Marianne remained silent for a few seconds. If she had never looked up at a sky as crisp and clear as this, she might have trouble separating the Dipper’s canonical stars from the clutter of fainter lights everywhere around them. So he was patient. She was only nine.

Charlene placed her hand on his shoulder and squeezed twice. Eric suspected she was thanking him for catering to her bratty little sister. Again, he felt Marianne’s hand tense as her eyes learned the skill of separating the brighter lights from the fainter.

“Yes! It’s there! What star is that?”

“Polaris. The pole star. The whole sky revolves around it.”

“Wow! And that’s really because we’re rotating, right?”

“Right. And Polaris is the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. It’s harder to see because its stars are fainter. It’s about the same shape as the Big Dipper, but smaller and aimed the opposite way.” Eric lifted lifted Marianne’s hand until it pointed to one side of Polaris. “See it?”

Eric could almost feel the epiphany that came upon Marianne. “I do! Wow! The Little Dipper! How do you knowall this stuff?”

Eric released her hand and stood. “I read books. Lots of them.”

 

In one rapid-fire lesson, Eric took Charlene and Marianne through the hallmarks of the late summer sky: Scorpius, the teapot of Sagittarius, the Summer Triangle, Delphinus, the Great Square of Pegasus, and all the bright stars from horizon to horizon. Halfway through the tour, he felt Charlene’s soft, small fingers wriggle their way between his. He lost his train of thought, and caught himself wondering where Achernar was. No, wait-that wouldn’t be visible this early until October. Only one thing was clear in his mind:

A beautiful girl was holding his hand.

“Please show me Lyra,” Charlene asked. Eric’s heart was pounding. “In the book I read, it actually looked like a harp.”

Lyra was almost at the zenith. Eric craned his neck back until he felt it pop. “Straight up. A very bright white star with a touch of blue. That’s Vega, Alpha Lyrae. You can’t miss it.”

“Yes! It was so bright and beautiful in that book. I wanted a T-shirt with ‘Lyra’ on it, printed in gold ink on black above the constellation. I wanted it to be my symbol.”

Eric pointed at Vega. “Lyra is a parallelogram, with Vega above and to the right of it. Four stars. It would be easier to see if it wasn’t straight up.”

“That’s easy to fix,” Charlene said, and sat on the sand. She stretched her legs out toward the water, and lay down. “I see it! Perfectly! It’s better even than the book!”

“No picture of the stars ever does them justice.” Eric pointed again, almost to the zenith. “To the right of Lyra is Hercules. It looks like a keystone.”

Charlene grabbed Eric’s ankle. “Don’t look straight up like that. You’ll hurt your neck. Lie down like me.” She turned to her sister. “Marianne, you too.”

“I dunno about this,” Marianne grumbled, but complied.

Eric hesitated, looking back toward the trees that separated the beach from the tent sites. He had done plenty of observing flat on his back. It was certainly a more comfortable position for looking at the zenith. But he’d never done it with a girl-or anyone else-beside him.

Once Marianne was stretched out on the sand, he sat down between the two girls, took one more nervous glance toward the road and the trees, and lay down himself.

The lecture began again. He explained how you could follow the curve of the Big Dipper’s handle and “arc to Arcturus” and later, following the same general curve, continue to Spica. He showed them the close pair of stars called the “cat’s eyes” at the stinger end of Scorpius. Wistfully, he told them that if he had his telescope finished, he could show them the rings of Saturn.

Eric heard Charlene wriggling toward him on the crunchy sand. Her hand gripped his right arm. The next thing he knew, her head was on his shoulder, her body pressed against his side. He had the intuition that she was paying but a fraction of the rapt attention that she had shown only minutes before. His tour of the sky stopped abruptly.

A slow, silent minute ticked past. Eric oscillated between elation and dread.

Dread won, in the form of Marianne’s agitated voice. “Hey, Shar, what are you doing over there? If mom sees us lying down like this, she’ll be mad.”

“Your mom is always mad.”

“You’re lying down and hugging a boy!”

Charlene looked over Eric’s recumbent body at her sister “I’m hugging my friend.”

“He’s a boy. It’s not like hugging mom.”

Charlene’s voice grew sharp. “Your mom hugs you. She’s never hugged me. Ever. And your dad never hugs anybody. Who am I supposed to hug?”

The last thing Eric needed was for the girls to get in a screaming match across his ribcage. The pale green luminous hands of his watch showed 9:41. He had promised Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer to get their daughters back to the site before ten. This was as good an excuse as any.

“Um, we have to go home now. It’s quarter to ten.”

Eric helped Charlene to her feet, with Marianne standing nearby, her arms crossed. Charlene rubbed her eyes and cheeks against the sleeves of her T-shirt. Once their three flashlights were lit, they walked back to the tents without another word. Charlene’s limp was still obvious, but she did not take Eric’s arm. And one faint smile was her only reaction when he finally said ‘G’night”.

Watch This Space…

(Something interesting coming soon to a Contra post near you…)


By the time Eric reached the road, his mother was already headed back to their campsite. He had to trot to catch up.

“She’s an interesting girl,” Marcia Lund said, when Eric drew alongside her.

“I think so too. But how did you…”

“No, I mean interesting.”

Eric’s mother had used that word with that emphasis before, sometimes of things she didn’t entirely approve of. “Mom, c’mon.”

Marcia laughed. “She came up to me and introduced herself. Dad came over and she introduced herself again. She said she wanted to meet you. I said you were down at the beach. Then your father invited her to have lunch with us.”

Eric grimaced. “Just like dad.” He took an uneasy breath. “Um…will she?”

“If her parents don’t object. And why would they?” Marcia grabbed her son’s forearm and squeezed it.

Eric waved her hand away. “Ok, ok. Now, what makes her, um, interesting?”

“Everything she said, she said in complete sentences. You could learn a few things from her.”

Eric groaned. “You’re an English teacher even on summer vacation.”

“I get paid year-round. And my kids will not be illiterate.”

They left the road and rounded the family’s big blue tent.

Charlene was already sitting at the campsite picnic table across from Eric’s younger sister Lisa, with a bright orange Melmac plate in front of her and a very big grin on her face.

Odd (COVID) Lots

  • Here’s an excellent summary of studies of SARS-CoV-2 mask effectiveness from Swiss Policy Research. It’s not an article so much as a list of research studies and papers from mostly European sources, all with links. A number of very clear graphs indicate how infections have mapped to mask mandates. The news is all bad for mask fetishists: Masks do not appear to have any significant effect on the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Be sure to watch the video, which supports my long-term contention that masks propel aerosol viruses via jets around their edges. Given how far air from those jets travels, I’d guess that being next to a person jetting around a mask is more dangerous than standing the same distance from somone not wearing a mask at all.
  • Here’s another solid item from Swiss Policy Research on COVID-19 treatment protocols. The US seems peculiarly reluctant to actively treat the disease with known protocols like zinc plus an ionophore or (for no reason I can discover) ivermectin. Yes, ivermectin does work. There is some recent research suggesting that HCQ + zinc will not work, but against that is a fair amount of research, some pioneered by Dr. Zev Zelenko in New York. Here’s the study to which Dr. Zelenko contributed.
  • If masks don’t work, what’s the best thing to do? Our doc suggested taking quercetin plus 50mg zinc gluconate every morning as a preventive. Quercetin is a strong ionophore that escorts zinc into cells where it can stop viral replication. Note that not all zinc is created equal. The bioavailability of zinc oxide is essentially zero. Stick with sulfate or gluconate. Quercetin is OTC; we use the NOW formulation that includes bromelain. Whether quercetin is as strong an ionophore as HCQ is something I’ve researched and found nothing useful. I find it interesting that quercetin is used in Erope to treat existing infections, and not merely as a preventive.
  • Nitay Arbel posted a link to a study suggesting that the Moderna vaccine’s protective effect is longer-lasting the the Pfizer vaccine’s. If you’re interested in pandemic science at all (as opposed to pandemic politics) bookmark his site and check it regularly.
  • Here’s a paper that discusses the differences between ivermectin and HCQ against COVID-19. The TLDR summary is that ivermectin acts against both early cases and more advanced cases, while HCQ+zinc work far better in early cases than advanced cases. HCQ alone doesn’t work at all. I’d suggest bookmarking the page because it contains a huge number of links to pertinent research of all kinds.
  • If you’ve never supplemented zinc before and are confused by all the options, this page will lay it all out. It’s a subtler business than I originally thought.

I’m Still Here

I’m still here–and still healthy. One of my correspondents asked in an email if I had stopped writing on Contra because I’d caught the virus. I haven’t. Motivation and energy are an issue, with both in somewhat short supply. That said, the truth is that Contra is mostly for long-form essays, and I’ve been stumped for concepts recently. I don’t want to talk about the election. There’s nothing I could say that others haven’t said a zillion times. And the pandemic is depressing enough. Politics would put me into a coma.

There are other issues that I’m sure I could talk about, and I’m pondering one now, which I hope to post in the next few days. And I need to do an Odd Lots. What I need to do most of all, however, is stop waiting for a 3,000-word entry to occur to me. Personal energy might allow me to get the ideas, but it might not allow me to produce the copy.

So what I may do here is go back to short subjects for awhile. I may duplicate entries posted here on MeWe or possibly Facebook. I’m annoyed at Facebook for blocking a link to a news item because Facebook doesn’t like the site. They didn’t say the item itself was false or misleading. They just said that the site wasn’t trustworthy. Well–who’s trusting the New York Times these days? Mostly people who agree with them. Is that the future? All media becoming hyperpartisan and excluding links to sites for strictly ideological reasons? That’s pretty depressing too.

And that’s why I created an account on MeWe. Unlike Facebook, they don’t have enough subscribers to allow them to alienate 49% of their readers with stupid ideological posturing. The list of things they won’t allow is short and sensible: Nudity/porn, threats of violence, impersonating other people, etc. It does not pass judgment on legal content. It doesn’t sell ads or track users. It’s American-owned. Its business model depends, like so many others, on selling premium accounts. Whether that’s enough to keep them afloat over the long haul is debatable. But for now, with millions of disgruntled Facebook users flooding in, its future looks tolerably bright.

This entry is just to reassure you that I haven’t abandoned Contra. I’m going to spend a good part of the afternoon writing and queueing up some shorter entries that I will post in coming days. That’s what I did when I created Contra (and its predecessor, VDM Diary) 22 years ago. So everything old is new again…except maybe bell-bottoms and BASICA.

Looking for Cableton

I’m gathering miscellaneous items I’ve written down the years into a collection called Odd Lots. A fair number of those are editorials or END/Breakpoint pieces I wrote for the magazine across its ten years of publication. I no longer have the source files for a lot of my earlier material, though I do have most from about 1996 on. I have a complete run of PC Techniques / Visual Developer on a high shelf…

…or at least I thought I did, until I was scanning the spines for August/September 1993. It wasn’t there. And that issue included something I wrote called “Cableton,” which I had included in the tentative table of contents for Odd Lots.

I tore the house up, and opened a few previously unopened boxes from our move down here in 2015. No Cableton. It may still be around here somewhere. However, I looked in all the obvious hiding places, and quite a few very non-obvious hiding places, like under my big reading chair. Hit a wall, I did. So let me put out a request to my friends and readers who may actually have a copy of that issue: Could someone email me a scan of “Cableton”? Once I have a scan I can OCR it, like I’ve done with a lot of other items in those very old issues.

What else will be in Odd Lots? Some humor pieces, most of which were never published. A fair number of editorials and idea pieces from the magazine that I think may still be important. A little memoir, some of which I’ve published here on Contra. A few important Contra entries. It won’t be a huge book, and it won’t be expensive. If nobody has that issue, I’ll call it unfortunate and move on. But if you have it and a decent scanner, please email me a page image.

Thanks!

And as a postscript, if you’ve enjoyed some short item that I’ve written, let me know. I’m not always a good judge of what my best work is. Then again, nobody ever is. It’s a blind spot that may be baked into the human mind.

Flashback: A Letter from Ma to the #1 Bum on V-J Day

Given that it’s the 75th anniversary of VJ-Day today, tomorrow, or maybe September 2, I want to re-post an entry I posted fifteen years ago, on the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII. On August 14, 1945, my grandmother Sade wrote a letter to her only son Frank (my father) while he was still at a radio base in Mali, North Africa. That letter is a marvelous little glimpse of how ordinary people responded to the end of the biggest and most calamitous war in human history. Follow the links to the letter. It’s worth your time. Really.

Below, a photo from 1950. L-R: My mother Victoria, my father Frank, my aunt and godmother Kathleen, my grandfather Harry and my grandmother Sade.

LR Vickie Frank Kathleen Harry Sade 1950-500 Wide.jpg


The day after Pearl Harbor, my father enlisted, along with all of his friends and cousins who were of age. This gang of fifteen-odd random Chicago kids scattered to the far corners of the world during the War, but one thing held them together: My grandmother’s Underwood typewriter. Throughout WWII, Sade “Ma” Duntemann called them The Bums, and (almost) monthly published The Bum’s Rush, a one-sheet newsletter carefully typed in two columns and run off after hours on a mimeo machine at the First National Bank downtown, where my grandfather Harry “Pops” Duntemann was a bank officer. She drew (or borrowed) little cartoons, and once enclosed a copy of a photo of the pool table in their basement, where my father and his buddies had hung out before enlisting. The newsletter held all the neighborhood gossip, and when possible descriptions of where the Bums were and what they were doing. The January 1945 issue described how my dad’s younger cousin John Phil Duntemann lost a toe when a greenhorn trainee backed T-5 John’s own bulldozer over his foot.

Five or six years ago, my sister and I unearthed something else: A private letter to the #1 Bum (our father) written by Sade on that same typewriter. It began on August 14, running on to the 15th, and it was a first-hand account of the gathering expectation and then the pandemonium in Chicago when news came that the War was finally over. It’s as close to a time machine as I’ll ever find. I cannot read it without hearing her voice, and the shouts in the street, and the church bells, the car horns, and the laughter and the joyous relief beginning a block off North Clark Street in Chicago, and spreading throughout a tired and grateful world. I knew a lot of these people, though most are now gone. I also know and appreciate what they did, so if they went a little nuts, and got a little drunk and silly, well, they earned every second of it.

Don’t try too hard to sort out the names. Sis was my Aunt Kathleen. The Marks (“Marxes”) were cousins. John Malone was my dad’s best friend and (later) his best man, and the families were very close. Most other people mentioned were neighbors. Willie is the mongrel dog my father later smuggled home from Africa, which is a wonderful story I will tell on the anniversary of my father’s return from the War.

Sade Prendergast Duntemann was very Catholic and very Irish. She tried to infuse her letters with some of that Irishness, and if you’re not used to reading Irish dialect, it may be confusing. So what I’ve done is prepared three copies, and you should attempt them in this order: Look at the scanned images of the letter (it’s faded and hard to read, but at least scan it) then read the literal transcription. If you can’t figure something out, then read the third version, which I edited a little for comprehensibility. “Demoni” means “tomorrow” in Italian. And I have absolutely no idea where Kernenyok is!

Image, Side 1 (521K) Image, Side 2. (567K)

Literal transcription.

Edited transcription.

I can add nothing to that. I’ll only say that when I was ten and my grandmother’s health was failing, she gave me that old Underwood typewriter, and I furiously pounded out stories on it for almost ten years until the keys started to fall off. I didn’t appreciate it at the time (How could I? and what 10-year-old ever does?) but no other gift apart from Carol’s gift of herself would ever change me more.