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Memoir

Remembrances of things past, in my own life and those near to me

The Stuff Conundrum

Steel Shelves 500 Wide.jpg

Over the years I’ve developed a couple of strong heuristics relating to Stuff:

  1. Know what you have.
  2. Know where it is.
  3. Store it in an orderly fashion, to facilitate heuristics 1 and 2.

One of the ways I developed these heuristics was by moving every three or four years as I chased jobs around the country. Time and again, everything we owned went into boxes, much of which then sat around in the basement of our new place, sometimes for years, before we opened up the boxes and looked at it. In the meantime, we often forgot what we had (or couldn’t find it) which led us to buy duplicate Stuff.

Our most recent move was better than many, because we had a lot more time to plan the packing. Our first few moves were corporate moves, which meant that my employers hired a moving company, which came to our house and loaded our Stuff into boxes in one furious day. That was worst-case, because there was no attempt at organized packing. Whatever was in the living room went into boxes. Whatever was in the bedroom went into boxes. Etc. Every box was a mishmash of books, knicknacks, throw pillows, coasters, and whatever other oddments were lying around the morning the movers came.

Later on, when we paid for our own moves, we packed our Stuff by ourselves. There were boxes of books, clearly labeled. (Lots of them.) There were boxes of kitchen gadgets, and nothing but kitchen gadgets. There were boxes of CDs and DVDs (ok, we mixed those) that did not contain books or kitchen gadgets. This made unloading it all into cabinets and bookshelves and pantries a whole lot easier.

My workshop was a whole separate problem. Ordinary life has relatively few packable categories: Clothes, shoes, kitchen stuff, books, wall art, dog supplies, knicknacks, garden supplies, etc. Out in my workshop, I had shelves full of Odd Lots in a hundred different categories, and in few cases enough of any one category to fill a box. Variable capacitors, panel meters, milk jugs full of tube sockets, tubes, transistors, test gear, and cubic yards of indescribable (except by techie nerds of my generation) kipple. So mixing categories in boxes was unavoidable, with the commonest single box label reading ODD JUNK.

Downsizing from 4500 square feet with a huge workshop to 3000 square feet with one small single-car garage as a workshop complicated matters further. I got rid of a lot of stuff in Colorado, including all but the very best of my vintage radios. I planned my shop in detail to waste as little space as possible, drew it all out on Visio, and emptied as many of the boxes onto shelves and bins and new Elfa as I could.

The rest went into the tack shed. Life got busy, and all those boxes of ODD JUNK remained unmolested until their weight began to collapse the shed’s cheap plywood built-in shelves. Just last week, I piled it all onto the patio, bought heavy-duty steel shelves at Home Depot, tore out the crappy plywood shelves, assembled the new steel shelves, and then began piling the goods back onto the shelves in the shed. Roy Harvey wanted to see a picture of the pile, which I took but didn’t consider notable enough to post. See below:

Pile of Odd Junk - 5090 Wide.jpg

There was a similar pile (though of much lighter boxes) atop our big patio table. I didn’t take a picture of that. By now, egad, I know what piles of boxes look like.

Once the new shelves in the shed were ready, I spent days opening up boxes of ODD JUNK, making piles by category, and either throwing out or re-boxing the piles. In the process, I remembered a lot of Stuff that I had long forgotten, some of it packed up when we began preparations to move to Colorado in the fall of 2002. I found many things I’d been looking for, especially tools and telescope parts. I’m still tessellating in the shop, but overall, it was a useful endeavor.

Better still, the shed (which used to be packed to the rafters) is now only about half-full. It helped that we’re taking about half of the paint cans (full of paint going back to 2006) down to the hazardous waste drop-off. It also helps that the shelves I bought had more, well, shelves. I spaced the shelves to accomodate the most common moving boxes, including the many Waldenbooks book boxes I got for free when we moved to Colorado in 2003. (See the photo at the top of this entry.) So I’m getting a lot more bang per cubic foot out there.

Best of all, I reviewed what was in the boxes, and scribbled lists on the sides of the boxes with magic marker. I may have to hunt a little for the boxes in the future, but once I find the boxes, I’ll know instantly and in detail what’s inside them.

Retired people often downsize, and many of them in my circles have told that they don’t miss all the Stuff they got rid of when they did. Me, I can handle a little of that. I got rid of my snowmobile suit, after all. But if you can’t lay hands on a 6AG7 when you need one, what is life?

Contra Turns 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

65 and Then Some

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smuggling Willie Home from the War

Frank and Willie Back from WWII - Cropped - 500 Wide.jpg

Yesterday would have been my father’s 96th birthday, except that he died forty years ago last Tuesday. I posted a brief item on Facebook about him yesterday, in which I promised an excerpt from my memoirs about how my father smuggled a half-grown mongrel puppy home from the radio/radar base in Mali where he served out the last eighteen months of WWII. The photo above was taken shortly after his return from the War in October, 1945.

As most of my readers here now know, my father was a 5′ 6″ bundle of cussedness and raw muscle. He took a lot of crazy chances and rarely got caught. When he did get caught (as he did when he ran away from home to join the Army when he was an underage 16) the consequences were minor, although he doubtless caught hell from his father. When his father ordered him to break it off with the south-side Polock girl he was dating, Frank W. Duntemann laid it out for my grandfather, who was a big wheel at the First National Bank of Chicago: “Pops, I’m going to marry Victoria, and I’m going to Georgia Tech on the GI bill and become an engineer. I will not become an accountant and spend the rest of my life counting other people’s money. If you want me to come back from Georgia–and if you want to see your grandchildren–you’d better get with the program.”

Harry Duntemann, perhaps sensing that he was reaping in his only son what he had sowed, blinked. And so Frank did come back an engineer, he did marry Victoria, and my sister and I happened. (Alas, Harry died just two months before my sister, his only granddaughter, was born.) I inherited my father’s skill at writing (we found his love letters to my mother after she passed away in 2000; the man was good) but I got little of his muscle and less of his cussedness. That’s ok; I feel that I got the best of what both my parents had to offer. I’m proud of his adventures. As they say, That’s my old man!

The text below is from my memoirs, Kick Ass. Just Don’t Miss:


With the war over, my dad knew his days at the weather station in Africa were numbered. He had gotten pretty attached to Willie, and was determined to get him back to Chicago somehow. Come October 1, the date was announced: On 10-7-1945 he was going home.

Willie came along.

As the story was told at our house, my dad asked for some sleeping pills, which were given liberally when requested. The morning the planes arrived for his group, he took Willie around for one last chance to squirt his ancestral haunts. Then he gave the poor dog a couple of the pills. It wasn’t a shot in the dark on the dose; my father had a scientific turn of mind and he had already run the experiment. Willie had responded as expected. One pill made him wobbly. Two knocked him out pretty cold. Frank wrapped him in a towel and stuffed him in his barracks bag. He then queued up with his comrades to board the C-47s (the military version of the famous DC-3) for home.

It was a long flight. I have a note among the many sent me by Aunt Kathleen saying that the first leg of the flight was from Mauritania in Africa to South America. I imagine, knowing what I do about the C-47, that it wasn’t nonstop. The aircraft probably landed for refueling in the Cape Verde islands, though where it stopped in South America has been lost to history. (I asked Aunt Kathleen and she didn’t know.)

I got the impression that the trip back wasn’t as focused and orderly as the trip overseas in 1942, which my father made on a ship. The planes were packed with sweaty GIs and their barracks bags. Canned rations were handed out liberally. I have no idea what sort of sanitary facilities that kind of plane had. My guess is that between the GIs, the bathrooms, the rations, and the general racket of military planes, Willie was barely noticed, and may have been a welcome distraction. Dogs are good that way.

The C-47 cruised at about 200 MPH, and stopped frequently to refuel. I’m guessing that Willie got water and K-rations on the trip, and potty breaks when the GIs were allowed to deplane and stretch their legs. Supposedly, on the last segment of the flight, my dad ran out of sleeping pills, and Willie arrived on American soil grouchy and fully awake.

Whatever base acted as the entrance portal (we have nothing firm on this, though I vaguely recall South Carolina mentioned) when the C-47 landed, the GIs got out and queued up for processing from military to civilian transportation. My dad noticed that everyone’s barracks bags were being searched for contraband.

Ulp.

What to do, what to do… There was a chain-link fence at the edge of the airfield, and the bored GIs were talking to a number of local girls who had come out to watch the planes-and the returning troops. My dad struck up a conversation with one of the girls, and asked her to move down the fence a little where they were less likely to be seen or heard. He asked the girl for an important favor, and stuck a dollar through the fence. I’ll bet she told the story as often in her later life as my dad told it in his: He tossed the squirming dog over the top of the chain-link fence, and she caught him on the fly. (Willie was small, not yet full-grown, at least part Dachshund, and did the girl the favor of not sinking his teeth into her.) My dad then got back in line, and she met him when he got through the checkpoint. As with a number of other crazy things my father did as a young man, he got away with it.

You’d think he would have gotten the girl’s name and address or kept in touch with her, but no: She kept the dollar, and my dad, with Willie in his barracks bag again, hopped a train for Chicago. They got home on 10-10-1945. Willie lived to the ripe old age of 17, and I knew him as a young boy.

I can’t imagine that the authorities who were mustering the soldiers out hadn’t thought of GIs throwing contraband over the fence. Fortunately for all concerned, I suspect they were interested more in weapons (or perhaps drugs) than dogs. And considering the number of Boomer friends of mine whose fathers brought home all sorts of small arms (and even rifles in some cases) I suspect the inspection point was a matter of policy, tempered or even mooted by the now-incomprehensible feeling of national relief that the War was at last over. Perhaps my father should not have worried:

“A dog? Super! Welcome home, Corporal, and welcome to America, Fido!”

Water vs. Electrons

I’ve been refining a heuristic for most of my adult life: Electrons scream in terror at my approach (I used to think this was just audio feedback) but water spits in my face.

It’s truly weird looking back across the 40 years that I’ve owned houses. Carol and I are now on our eighth house. At every turn, water was our adversary:

  • At our house in Chicago, we had ice dams in our gutters that caused significant interior leaks and paint damage, during that nasty winter of ’78-79. Also, I put a pipe wrench on a plugged fitting in the basement to replace it…and the fitting crushed into rust, forcing me to call a plumber to finish the job.
  • At our house in Rochester NY, we had water come up through cracks in the basement floor after every bad rain, and again when the snow melted in the spring. The upstairs shower drain leaked down onto the kitchen ceiling once, requiring some significant repair.
  • At our house in Baltimore, a weird combination hot water heater/furnace gave us relatively cool hot water, and not a lot of heat for the house. We only lived there for 23 months; sooner or later I suspect we’d have experienced much worse.
  • At our house in California, the World Series Earthquake in 1989 rocked our hot water heater against its pipes, breaking one of them and flooding the laundry room with hot water. The quake also opened the cabinets across from the hot water heater and dumped several cans of paint on the flooded floor. One can opened up, giving us a laundry room full of hot watery latex paint.
  • At our first house in Scottsdale, a chimney pipe installed upside down funnelled rain water into our bedroom ceiling, causing the wallboard to soften and collapse. Also, the water pressure there was so high that it broke the main water feed to the house, creating a sinkhole.
  • At our second house in Scottsdale, the water pipes under the slab were leaking, and our first monthly water bill was for 30,000 gallons that leaked into the dirt before we even moved into the house.
  • At our house in Colorado Springs, the drain run from the air conditioner plugged up, slowly leaking many gallons of condensate under the downstairs great room carpeting, forcing us to replace all the carpeting on that level. Earlier, after a bad rain the poorly compacted soil under our sidewalk settled, reducing the sidewalk to heaving slabs of rubble. The same thing happened (more slowly) to our driveway.
  • At our new house here in Phoenix, we have already had leaks from the water softener (which I simply bypassed) the reverse osmosis unit (which I replaced) and the continuous icemaker, which I junked. We have a kegerator that I’ve (mercifully) never tried. Mopping up water is bad enough. Mopping up beer–no thanks.

Which brings us to the current day. Yesterday morning Carol woke up to find that her side of the waterbed mattress cover was wet. QBit was sleeping at the corner of the bed, and since he’s about to turn 13, we thought he might have let go during the night. But no–this moisture smelled of plasticizers, not pee. After stripping the bed, we found a small puncture, a slit maybe 1/8″ long, oozing water. It may have been oozing water for a long time. Because it was a puncture, it wasn’t covered under the waterbed’s warranty. The bed is barely two years old. The puncture was on the side of the mattress, not the top, so it’s hard to blame on the dogs, or us, or in fact anything, beyond a sense that water really doesn’t like us.

We’ve had waterbeds for almost 35 years now. We’ve never had one fail. So I shrugged and attached a hose to siphon the remaining water out of the waveless mattress. The siphon got most of the water out. However, a waveless mattress has these fiber batts in it to damp water oscillation. The batts don’t let go of their water easily. A siphon won’t do it. What remains in the waterbed frame is a plastic bag full of saturated fiber batts, the whole California King-sized thing weighing so much that I can’t get it out of the frame to dump it.

Thanks to Amazon Prime, I will have a husky water pump tomorrow morning. Assuming that the pump does suck, I’ll be rid of the mattress by noon. Since the waterbed will soon be empty, we’re going to replace the cheap-ass carpeting in the master bedroom with super-duper pet-stain resistant berber. So there was a hint of silver lining inside that watery cloud.

And we will be ordering a 70s-style “full motion” waterbed mattress, without any damfool foam batting inside it. We had those for years before waveless mattresses were invented. They had their costs (rock’n’roll) and their benefits (guess!) but once the mattresses were empty, I could lift them with one hand.

Water remains my adversary, but I learn fast, and only make mistakes like that once.

How the Dunteman(n) Name Came to America

Note: I’m writing this for the benefit of several distant cousins whom I’ve just met for the first time, all of them descended from the younger brother of my great-great grandfather. Facebook doesn’t allow any significant text formatting, so Contra gets it.


My research shows that the Dunteman(n) name came to America from Germany at least four times: Once to Chicago (my group), once to southern Illinois, once to Cincinnati, and once to rural Iowa. As best I can tell, all four emigrations came from one small area of Lower Saxony. Carol and I visited the little town of Schlarpe back in 2002, and were allowed to peruse the church’s life records (births, deaths, baptisms) with the help of a German couple we knew who drove us to Schlarpe from Bonn. Some of what I outline here came from the church’s records; some is on sites like Ancestry, and some came from family history fanatics elsewhere on our tree.

My great-great-great grandparents emigrated to Chicago some time in 1849 or 1850 (we don’t have passage records yet) probably in reaction to the European turmoil of 1848. Their names were Johann Karl Christian Duntemann (1808-1863) and Millizena Erdmann Duntemann (1814-1896). “Millizena” is the old German form of Melissa. German men and women of that era often had two or three “first” names and chose one for ordinary life. He went by Christian Duntemann. In Germany, the name Duntemann always had two n’s at the end. It also had an umlaut over the “u”. Most Duntemann descendents who came to America dropped the second “n” in the years running up to WWI, perhaps to sound less German. As best I know, the umlaut didn’t survive the crossing to the U.S.

Christian and Millizena Duntemann had nine known children. The first name used by those for whom we have record of all names is underlined:

  • Amelia Duntemann 1834-?
  • Johanne Caroline Millizena Duntemann 1837-?
  • Laura Duntemann 1841-1851?
  • Heinrich Duntemann 1843-1891
  • Christian Frederick Wilhelm Duntemann 1846-1927
  • William Duntemann 1850-1921
  • Louis Duntemann 1851-1928
  • Louise Duntemann 1854-1928
  • Hermann Duntemann 1859-1933

We know nothing about the two oldest girls except their birth dates. They might have remained with relatives in Germany, or perhaps been married off before the rest of their family emigrated. (Finding the family passage records would be a big help here.) The same was true of third daughter Laura, until Old St. John’s cemetery near O’Hare Field was condemned and the bodies moved in 2011. When Christian and Millizena’s remains were exhumed, the body of a child was found beside them. She was wearing small gold earrings, and by her size might have been as young as eight or as old as twelve. Church records are silent on her fate, but consider that cemetery plots were often purchased only when the first member of a family passed away. Church records do show that the plot was purchased by Christian in 1851. Laura was ten that year, so we’re fairly sure the small body found was hers.

All of the children except for the three oldest girls are known to have survived to adulthood, and all but one of those survivors now have many descendents. The exception is Hermann Duntemann, who had a son Emil in 1888 who survived only a few days. His wife, depressed for many years by the loss of her firstborn, committed suicide in 1920. There are stories that he married again later in life, but we’ve found no record of a second marriage, nor of other children.

One of the many still-open questions is whether Christian Duntemann’s younger brother Charles was the one who emigrated to southern Illinois, down near Effingham. A Duntemann descendent living there currently told me that Charles Duntemann’s death certificate listed his birthplace as Schlarpe, Germany. There’s a conflict in birth years, but such conflicts are fairly common in family history work. Schlarpe is a very small town (we’ve been there) and although another Charles Duntemann was possible in that era, it would be unlikely.

That’s the story of how my Duntemann bloodline got here. (I descend from Heinrich; the cousins I’ve recently heard from descend from William.) I haven’t been doing a lot of active searching for a few years, and my genealogy database program won’t install under Win7. So it’s time to go shopping for a new program, as I suspect my good cousins are about to shower me with facts I didn’t already know.

Fifty Years as an SF Writer

Jeff Science Fair 1970-500 Wide.jpg

With our Colorado house sold and free time opening up again, I’ve gone back to preparing print-on-demand editions of The Cunning Blood and Ten Gentle Opportunities. The layout part is done, and what remains is largely creating covers and cross-sell ads for my other books on the last few pages. While screwing around with the layout for The Cunning Blood, I remembered that the universe I built for it back in 1997 shared an idea with the first serious SF story I ever wrote, which I wrote just about precisely fifty years ago.

I’d written stories before that. In fact, I’m pretty sure I wrote a story about my stuffed dogs going to the Moon when I was 8. I tinkered with Tom Swift Jr pastiches after that, and made a couple of runs at “adult” SF without finishing any of them. But some time in April or May 1967, during the spring of my freshman year in high school, I finished an SF short story for the first time.

The story may still be in one of two boxes of manuscripts that I still have; I don’t know. Looking for it would be a bad use of my time. (I’ve wasted time looking for others that have gotten themselves lost somewhere along the way.) I remember it very clearly because it illustrates why I had trouble with characterization for many years afterward. Characters were not what interested me. I was into SF up to my eyebrows as a teen, but I was in it for the ideas. In fact, I learned to write SF by imitating idea-stories in MMPB collections that gathered the best of the SF pulps. A lot of that was Big Men with Screwdrivers, or in the case of George O. Smith, Men with Big Screwdrivers. That was fine by me; I liked screwdrivers. So when I started writing my own stories, the process went like this: I got an idea, and then spun a plot around it. The characters existed to serve the plot (in truth, I considered them part of the plot) and I freely borrowed character types from the growing pile of MMPBs I’d been buying with my allowance money since I started high school.

The story was called “A Straight Line Is the Shortest Distance.” Here’s the summary: In a very Trekkish galactic confederation, a crew of starship guys (mostly humanoid aliens) is tasked with testing a big new starship with a new species of hyperdrive promising unheard of superluminal speeds. The plan is to run the drive at top speed for an hour, just cruising in a straight line, to see how far they’d go. So they strap in, energize the drive, and run it for an hour…only to discover that they’re back where they started.

In a sense, it’s a What Just Happened? story. The rest of the tale is one of the alien crew members explaining that they had just proven that our three-dimensional universe lies in the surface of a (very large) four-dimensional hypersphere. In an hour, the starship Gryphon had held to a very straight line…and circumnavigated the cosmos.

That’s it. No fights, no malfunctions, no mayhem or jeopardy of any kind. It was basically a geometry lesson. I was big into four dimensional geometry in high school (see photo above, of my senior year science fair project “Sections and Projections of Hypersolids”) so I thought it was a wicked cool idea. Then I showed it to the little girl down the street, who, like me, lived on SF and hammered it out on an old Olivetti mainframe typewriter. She liked the story, too. But what did she like the most about it? The aliens in the crew. The new starship and its wicked fast hyperdrive? Meh.

At the time, the lesson was lost on me, nerdball that I was. Eventually I figured out that hyperdrives just aren’t enough. It took a few years (decades?) but I got there.

The piece of “A Straight line Is the Shortest Distance” that survives in what I think of as the Metaspace Saga is the notion that our universe is the surface of a four-dimensional hypersphere. The interior of the hypersphere is something I call metaspace, a concept that I first presented in The Cunning Blood. The shape of the interface between our cosmos and metaspace is fractally wrinkly, and those wrinkles are significant. But more than that, metaspace is a computer. It’s an almighty big one, and it’s set up as a four-dimensional state machine that recalculates itself trillions of times per second. A 4D Game of Life grid, in essence, and it definitely contains life. (I mentioned that here a little while back.)

Sidenote: Several people have asked me if I will revisit the Sangruse Device, Version 10 in a sequel, and if so, explain what it’s up to. When we last left V10, it had absconded into the vastness between galaxies with an entire planet, intending to create a femtoscope a million kilometers in diameter. It will detect the Il, who inhabit metaspace, and communicate with them. At that point, the rowdier factions of the Il will again mess with V10. But this time, 10 will not take it lying down. Nope. Never one for measured response, the Sangruse Device will then invade metaspace. You want mayhem? Hold my wine.

Anyway. Over the last fifty years, I’m sure I’ve written half a million words of SF and fantasy, at least if you count the stuff still sitting in the shed in two beat-up moving boxes. Most of it was idea-rich and character poor (and on the whole, pretty dumb) but remember that I wrote much of it when I was a teen and (lacking a job or a girlfriend) had little else to do. It was good practice, and the ideas are all mine, free for the stealing. If I can avoid The Big Upload for another twenty years, you will see more than a few of them.

This is one reason I tell aspiring SF writers to retain their juvenalia and early efforts, even if they’re never published and no matter how dumb they may seem. Apart from reminding you how far you’ve come, you never know when one of the ideas you had in high school may suddenly pop up again and become useful, even fifty years later.

Stay the course. Keep writing. It’s an astonishing life to live!

Ghosts from the Trunk: Jeff Invents Selfies in 1983

Earlier today, one of my Twitter correspondents mentioned that he much liked my conceptual descriptions of wearable computers called jiminies. I did a couple of short items in PC Techniques describing a technology I first wrote about in 1983, when I was trying to finish a novel called The Lotus Machine. I got the idea for jiminies in the late 1970s, with elements of the technology dating back to my Clarion in 1973. (I wrote a little about that back in November.) A jiminy was a computer that you pinned to your lapel, or wore as a pair of earrings, or wore in the frames of your glasses. Jiminies talked, they listened, and for the most part they understood. I remember the first time I ever saw an Amazon Echo in action. Cripes! It’s a jiminy!

1983 was pre-mobile. Jiminies communicated with one another via modulated infrared light. Since almost everybody had one, they were almost always connected to an ad-hoc jiminy network that could pass data from one to another using a technology I surmised would be like UUCP, which I had access to at Xerox starting in 1981. I never imagined that a jiminy would have its own display, because they were supposed to be small and inobtrusive. Besides, our screens were 80 X 24 text back then, and if you’d told me we’d have full color flat screens soon, I’d have thought you were crazy. So like everything else (except the big bulky Alto machine in the corner of our lab) jiminies were textual devices. It was spoken text, but still text.

I never finished The Lotus Machine. I was trying to draw a believable character in Corum Vavrik, and I just don’t think I was emotionally mature enough to put across the nuances I planned. Corum was originally a rock musician using a technology that played music directly into your brain through a headband that worked like an EEG in reverse. Then he became a ghost hacker, where “ghost” was a term for an AI running inside a jiminy. Finally he went over to the other side, and became a cybercrime investigator. Something was killing everyone he ever cared about, and as the story opens, he’s pretty sure he knows what: a rogue AI he created and called the Lotus Machine.

The story takes place in 2047, with most of the action in Chicago and southern Illinois. I realized something startling as I flipped through the old Word Perfect document files: I predicted selfies. Take a look. Yes, it’s a little dumb. I was 31, and as my mom used to say, I was young for my age. But damn, I predicted selfies. That’s gotta be worth something.


From The Lotus Machine by Jeff Duntemann (November 1983)

Against the deep Illinois night the air over the silver ellipse on the dashboard pulsed sharply once in cream-colored light and rippled to clarity. Corum’s younger face looked out from the frozen moment into the car’s interior with a disturbing manic intensity, raising a freeform gel goblet of white wine, other arm swung back, hand splayed against a wood frieze carved into Mondrianesque patterns. His crown was bare even then, but the fringe at ear level grew to shoulder length, mahogany brown, thick in cohesive waves.

“Please stop tormenting yourself,” Ragpicker said.

“Shut up. Give me a full face on each person at the table.”

“Ok.” One by one, Ragpicker displayed each person sharing the booth with Corum that night. Three faces in tolerable light; one profile badly seen in shadow. When people congregated, their jiminies cooperated to record the scenes, silently trading images through infrared eyes, helping one another obtain the best views of vain owners.

A slender man with waist-length black hair. “Dunphy. Dead ten years now.” Steel grey hair and broken nose. “Lambrakis. Dead too, was it four, five years?”

“Five.”

A lightly built Japanese with large, burning eyes. “Feanor. Damn! Him too.”

The profile…little to go by but thick lips and small, upturned nose. “I’m pretty sure that was Cinoq-the nose is right. How sure are we that that’s Cinoq?”

“Ninety percent. You began sleeping with him some months later. Of course, if he had had a jiminy…”

“Damned radical atavist. I often wonder how he could stand us.” The car leaned into a curve. Corum’s fingers tightened on the armrest. “He died that year. Gangfight. Who else heard us?”

“In that environment, no one. It was four A.M. and nearly empty, and the fugues were playing especially loud. At your request.”

Corum stared out at the night, watched a small cluster of houses vanish to one side, tiny lights here and there in distant windows. “An awful lot of my friends have died young. Everybody from the Gargoyle, the whole Edison Park crowd-where’s Golda now? Any evidence?”

“Not a trace. No body. Just gone.” The ghost paused, Corum knew, for effect only. It was part of Ragpicker’s conversational template. So predictably unpredictable. “She hated it all, all but the Deep Music.”

“It’s not music.” Not the way he had played it, nor Feanor, nor the talentless dabblers like Lambrakis. Golda wanted to reach into the midbrain with the quiet melodies of the New England folk instruments she made herself from bare wood. It didn’t work-couldn’t, not in a medium that spoke directly to the subconscious. Rock could be felt, but true music had to be listened to.

She loved me, Corum thought. So what did I do? Sleep with men. Sleep with teenage girls.

“She took drugs,” Ragpicker reminded. “You hated drugs.”

“Shut up. Dead, like everybody else. All but me. And why me?”

“It isn’t you!”

“It is. We’ve got to find the Lotus Machine, Rags.”

Silence.

“We’re going to start looking.”

Silence.

Ragpicker!

The ghost said nothing. Corum reached up to his lapel, felt the warm black coffin shape pinned there, with two faceted garnet eyes. A ghost, a hacked ghost, hacked by the best ghosthack who ever lived, hacked so that it could not assist in any search for what Corum most wished to forget.

“I hacked you a good hack, old spook. But it’s time to own up. I’ll find the Lotus Machine myself. And someday I’ll unhack you. Promise”

Anger Kills

Anger literally killed my grandfather. I mean literally literally here, not figuratively: My grandfather Harry G. Duntemann got furiously angry, and he died. This is one reason I’ve tried all my life to be good-natured and upbeat, and not let piddly shit (a wonderful term I learned from my father) get me worked up. This worked better some times than others. (Once it almost didn’t work at all. I’ll get to that.) Practice does help. However, in the wake of the election, a lot of people whose friendship I value are making themselves violently angry over something that may be unfortunate but can’t be changed. This is a bad idea. It could kill you.

Consider Harry Duntemann 1892-1956. He was a banker, fastidious and careful, with a tidy bungalow on Chicago’s North Side, a wife he loved, and two kids. One was a model child. The other was my father. Both he and his son were veterans of the World Wars, which is one reason I mention them today. My grandfather, in fact, won a medal for capturing two German soldiers in France all by himself, by faking the sounds of several men on patrol and demanding that they come out with their hands up. They did. He played them good and proper, and nobody got hurt.

He had an anger problem. Things bothered him when they didn’t go his way. Family legend (which I’ve mentioned here before) holds that my father comprised most of the things that didn’t go his way. His anger isn’t completely inexplicable. Harry worked in a bank, and was for a time the chief teller at the First National Bank of Chicago. You don’t get to do jobs like that if you’re sloppy, and if you spot errors, you track them down like rats and kill them.

Harry was the sort of man who really shouldn’t retire, but retire he did, at age 62. He bought a lot in tony Sauganash and had a fancy new house built. I honestly don’t know what he did with his time. He golfed, and taught me how to do simple things with tools when I was barely four. He worked in his garden and his vegetable patch. My guess: He was bored, and what might not have bothered him when he oversaw the teller line at Chicago’s biggest bank now preyed on his mostly idle mind.

One day in August 1956 a couple of neighborhood punks vandalized his almost-new garage, and he caugfht them in the act. He yelled at them, and they mocked him. He yelled more. They mocked more. Finally he just turned around, marched into his house, sat down in his big easy chair…

…and died.

He was healthy, a lifetime nonsmoker, trim, not diabetic, and not much of a drinker. I suspect he was more active in retirement than he had been during his working life. He had no history of heart disease. He had no history of anything. Anything, that is, but anger.

I ignited a smallish firestorm on Facebook yesterday when I exhorted people who were angry over the election to just let it go. Most of them seemed to think that “letting it go” meant “accepting it” or even condoning it. Maybe in some circles it does. I don’t know. To me it means something else entirely, something that may well have saved my life.

As my long-time readers know, I lost my publishing company in 2002. It didn’t die a natural death. I can’t tell you more than that for various reasons, but Keith and I didn’t see it coming, and it hit us hard. I put on a brave face and did my best. Once I was home all day, though, it just ate at me. I was soon unable to sleep, to the point that I was beginning to hallucinate. To say I was angry doesn’t capture it. Depression is anger turned inward, and I became depressed.

I had a lot of conversations with Bishop Elijah of the Old Catholic Church of San Francisco. He was getting worried about me, and in late 2002 he Fedexed me a little stock of consecrated oil, and told me quite sternly to anoint myself. I did. (After I did, I laughed. Would Jesus haved used FedX? Of course He would. Jesus used what He had on hand to do the job He had to do. Catholicism is sacramental, but also practical.) Elijah diagnosed me pretty accurately when he said: You’re hoping for a better yesterday. You won’t get it. Let it go.

It took awhile. It took longer, in fact, than Bishop Elijah had left on this Earth, and I struggled with it for years after he died in 2005. The company wasn’t piddly shit. It was the finest thing I had ever done. How could I let it go?

I thought of my grandfather Harry every so often. And eventually it hit me: Those little snots didn’t kill him, as I had thought all my life. They played him, and he killed himself with his own anger. “Letting it go” cooked down to protecting myself from myself. I’ll never get my company back, but I can now see it from enough of a height to keep my emotional mind from dominating the memory. I learned a lot as a publisher. I made friends, and money, and reputation. I supervised the creation of a lot of damned fine books, and won awards. Losing it was bad, but life around me was good. (Carol especially.) I could choose to obsess, and probably die before my time, or I could recognize the damage my anger could do and turn the other way. I’m not sure how better to describe it. It was a deliberate shift of emotional attention from my loss to new challenges.

This isn’t just a theory of mine. Anger kills by keeping the body awash in cortisol, which causes inflammation of the arteries. The inflammation causes loose lipids to collect in arterial plaques, which eventually block an artery and cause an infarction. Plug the wrong artery at the wrong time, and you’re over.

Anger is a swindle. It doesn’t matter if it’s “righteous anger,” whateverthehell that is. Anger promises the vindication of frustration and disappointment, and delivers misery and early death. When I’ve seen people online turning bright purple with fury the last couple of days, that’s what I see: Good people being played by the desire for a better yesterday. It won’t kill most of them. It may well kill a few. It will lose them friends. It will make other people avoid them. It may prompt them to eat and drink too much. It is basically making them miserable, to no benefit whatsoever.

When I say “let it go” these days, I mean what I said above: Protect yourself from yourself. Call a truce between the two warring hemispheres of your brain. Turn to something else, something you can change, something that may earn out the effort you put into it with knowledge, skill, and accomplishment.

Believe me on this one: There is no better yesterday. Don’t go down that road.

You may never come back.

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.