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Ideas & Analysis

Discussions of various issues including suggested solutions to problems and pure speculation

Things That Are Slowly Vanishing

What caught my attention was the rate at which people are abandoning landline phones. At least half the people I’ve asked about this don’t have one anymore. (We haven’t had one since we left Colorado.) In thinking a little, I discovered a few other things that seem to be going away so slowly people aren’t noticing. Here’s a list of what I think belongs in that category, in no particular order:

  1. Landlines. And phones that ring because they contain an electromechanical ringer with a metal bell.
  2. Bowling. I used to see bowling alleys regularly here and there. Heck, our parish church in Chicago where I grew up had one, and may still. Bowling was never a big thing in my family, so maybe I just don’t notice it anymore. I think I last bowled about 12 or 15 years ago, and even then I found myself thinking, “Will I ever do this again?”
  3. Roller rinks. There was one just outside Chicago called The Hub Roller Rink, where I went a few times as a kid until I realized that roller skating was not my thing. The Hub is long gone. The last time I roller skated was in Scotts Valley at a Borland Halloween party in the fall of 1987. I don’t remember the last time I saw a roller rink, anywhere, since then.
  4. Ice cream men in trucks. When I was a kid 55 or 60 years ago, Good Humor sent their trucks around my neighborhood on a regular basis in the summer, with their unmistakable bells. The last time I saw an ice cream truck was about 2008, when Carol and I had a condo in Des Plaines IL, outside Chicago. The truck we saw every week or so would play music electronically, and the music I remember clearly, because it’s a hymn that I have on a Lorie Line CD, but it’s not identified in the liner notes. (It’s in a medley with “Lord of the Dance.”)
  5. Dime-store kites. Although I see cheap kites (plastic now, not paper) in stores every spring, I almost never see kids flying them. I’m not talking about expensive fabric stunt kites you see on Amazon. I mean the plain diamond or delta kites that were ubiquitous 50-60 years ago, and probably peaked in 1964 or so. The only places I’ve seen them recently are at campgrounds, like where we camped in Nebraska for the 2017 solar eclipse.
  6. Metal construction sets. My dad bought me a British Meccano set when I was 7, and shortly after that I inherited my cousin Ron’s big Erector set. It was my favorite toy into my early teens.  I learned how a car’s differential works because I built one, out of brass gears and small steel girders. Lego took over that category (plastic is easier and cheaper to make than metal) but at least some kids are still building things.
  7. CB radio. CB was a craze in the 1970s. I bought a radio in 1971, and by 1972 most of my friends had them. I have a good antenna and a good radio that will receive (but not transmit on) the CB frequencies. I hear some distant heterodynes and an occasional trucker on the bands, but CB’s frequencies are now mostly vacant. “How ‘bout that Sundog!” was how we began a contact in 1972.
  8. Manual eggbeaters. Ok, we have cheap-ish cordless electric mixers these days, but when I was a kid I used a hand-cranked item with a red wooden handle, and used it mostly to mix chocolate pudding. It was still in the drawer when I left home in 1976. I’ve often wondered if anybody still uses them.
  9. Videotape. I still have a mini-8 camcorder. (I think.) The last time I used it was to make movies when we were fostering a mama bichon and her three puppies when their owner was in the hospital, back in 2009. One of the puppies we bought and named Dash. I still have a VHS tape deck. Ok, that stuff is already gone. but I took some terrific video with it.
  10. Sunken living rooms. These were stylish in the 70s and 80s, and the first new house Carol and I ever bought (in 1990) had one. They’re a trip-and-fall hazard, especially for the older set, and simply aren’t done anymore.
  11. Control-line model airplanes. These were big in the ‘50s and early 60’s. You stood in the middle of a circle with a handle and two wires connecting you to a gas-powered model airplane. You had a friend hook the glow-plug to a battery and spin the .049 engine until it caught, then you pivoted in a circle as the plane flew in a circle around you, going high and low in response to how you held the handle. Never did it myself, but I watched the older kids who did.
  12. Usenet. I got a Usenet login in 1981, because I worked for Xerox. It was fun, but I really didn’t know how to use it well. After I left Xerox in 1985, I didn’t see Usenet again until the mid-1990s, when most of the ISPs carried it. I had a lot of fun in newsgroups in the midlate 1990s on groups like alt.life.afterlife and the one or two that catered to assembly language. I had a paid Usenet account for a few years in the late oughts and early teens. I gave it up when what was posted was mostly porn, pirated content, and malware.
  13. Waffle irons. My parents had an electric one, and I think I remember them using it…twice. I never much liked pancakes or their nonskid brethren, waffles. But they really did used to be a thing. Maybe it’s just easier now to go to Waffle House and not make a mess in the kitchen.
  14. Drive-in movies. We went to plenty of them in the late 50s and early 60s, and I took Carol to a couple early in our history. I’m pretty sure that the land they required eventually got way too valuable to waste on a low-margin business like movies. There was one in Grayslake, near my family’s summer home, and I remember watching “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” on its screen through my 8” telescope, which dates it to 1966. It looked like two obnoxious people screaming at each other. Funny how many movies are pretty much that, even today.

That’s what comes to mind now, sitting here in my chair and pondering what was once a commonplace that just faded away. Got anything to add to the list? If I get enough I’ll run an addendum.

New Year’s Daywander–A Day Late

But better late than never. I actually relaxed, played with our Lionel trains, and posted a few Odd Lots to Twitter, which I will gather into a Contra post later this week as time permits.

One of those Odd Lots posts went viral.

This has never happened to me before. I didn’t join Twitter until 2014, and haven’t used it as much as most users, especially the bluchecks, who more or less live there. I have better things to do than live my life on social media. I keep my Twitter account because every time I post a link to one of my books, I sell a few books. This doesn’t happen on Facebook, probably because my Facebook audience is relatively static, and I’ve sold about as many books to the people who read my Facebook wall as that static audience wants to buy. I’m ok with that. Saturating an audience is a species of winning.

Twitter is different. People who read something I post and like it can retweet (basically, repost) that tweet to their own followers, most of whom have never heard of me. If it catches their attention they can in turn retweet my original tweet to their own followers, and the chain reaction continues until it burns out.

This is not a good thing if the chain reaction consists of a Twitter lynch mob. That usually happens with political tweets, which I rarely if ever post. The tweet that sparked a chain reaction this time had nothing to do with politics. It was about food: A team of University of Washington researchers scrutinized decades’ worth of studies focusing on red meat consumption and its association with various illnesses, like cancer, heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. What they found was (a little) startling: The correlation between red meat and cancer, heart disease, and diabetes was down in the noise. There was no correlation with stroke. None.

Their conclusion violated all kinds of conventional wisdom, which warmed my heart. I have some sort of genetic aversion to conventional wisdom, most of which is deliberately designed by those in power. I’d seen some research showing the meat-disease connection to be false. This time, people at a reputable institution nailed it for all time.

And it took off like an F-14. Before the dust settled last night, that one tweet got 823 likes, 295 retweets, and 16 comments, many of which I answered, spawning still more comments. Come this morning I had 21 more followers than I had before I posted the meat-bomb tweet.

No other tweet of mine has every done a tenth as well.

There were some grumblers and at least one troll, who claims that he lost weight on a high-carb diet—and stated that all books saying carbs make you fat have been debunked. They haven’t, obviously, but I’m letting him be him. Maybe he’s a metabolic outlier. It’s ok. I don’t block people unless they attack me, and politely challenging a tweet I post is not an attack.

I have no idea why that particular link started a chain reaction. I don’t really care. It’s how I build an audience for my books, and to a lesser extent, for Contra. It’ll be very interesting to see if it ever happens again.

_…_  _…_

Yesterday was Public Domain Day. This year everything published in 1927 went into the public domain. The big fish in that pond is (finally!) Sherlock Holmes. The last Holmes story was published in 1927. So now the Conan Doyle estate can pack up their tent and go home. They certainly got their money’s worth.

What else is now free as in, well, free? It’s a decent list:

  • The first three Hardy Boys books are now PD. I was never a big HB fan, but I read The Tower Treasure and enjoyed it. Expect more HB adventures entering the indie pipe soon.
  • Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
  • The Jazz Singer.
  • …and a whole lot more.

_…_  _…_

I begin 2023 with a new blog editor for Contra: Open Live Writer. This is a fork of the Microsoft product Windows Live Writer 2012, which was open-sourced some years ago. I tried that item back in 2012, but it was not “better enough” to switch. I’ve been limping along on Raven Plus, an adaptation of the now-defunct Zoundry Raven, introduced in 2008 but basically killed by Windows 10. Raven Plus runs on Win10, if barely, and in 2022 I got tired enough of its glitches that I spent some time trying out new blog editors. Open Live Writer won. I won’t fully endorse it until I’ve used it for a few months, but so far it’s given me no trouble at all.

Oh—and I no longer post to LiveJournal. Nobody was reading the Contra mirror I maintained there, and the site finally killed my paid account for nonpayment.

_…_  _…_

So before I forget: Happy New Year, everybody! My plan file this year includes finishing the fourth edition of Assembly Language Step By Step, and finishing and publishing The Everything Machine, the first full-length Drumlins novel. If I can nail those two items, I’ll consider the year a good one. Thanks for reading and don’t lose touch!

A New Twitter Year

I don’t know how he does it. Really. Elon Musk started companies to make electric cars, orbital boosters, subway tunnels, and probably others I haven’t heard of. And then he bought Twitter and put it on his Discover card. (Sorry, dumb joke. It was actually his MasterCard.)

However he did it (and I think he paid way more than it was worth) he now owns Twitter outright. You could hear the screams out to the edges of the atmosphere: Musk is literally Hitler! Twitter is a hellscape of viewpoints I disagree with!  Twitter is literally genocide! The first thing our man Elon did was what needed doing most: Purging accounts trading in child sexual abuse material. The second most important thing: Ending the Blue Checkmark as a badge of the anointed elite. He now sells them for $8 a month. I’ll probably get one sooner or later, just to support him.

Twitter is now what it was intended to be: a virtual town square where lots of interesting things can be discussed and linked to. No more shadowbanning. No more throttling of reach. No more colluding with the Feds to suppress viewpoints that the Feds don’t like.

It’s not like there are no rules. As I mentioned above, Musk declared war on Twitter accounts that trade in child sexual abuse content early in the game, and has canceled tens of thousands of accounts for breaking those rules. There are rules against impersonating other people, and probably some others that I’m not aware of. Closer to home, I find I can post articles about “forbidden” COVID treatments, along with other contentious health issues, like whether or not red meat is a precursor to cancer and heart disease. I tried to do some of those posts a year or so ago, and every one got shot down. I had to call Ivermectin “IVN” and hope people could read the code.

All gone, and good riddance.

I don’t engage in political arguments for the most part, so I’ve not heard much of the blood and thunder raging between those who liked the old Twitter and those who prefer the new. I have seen a lot of former bluechecks claiming to have left Twitter (whether they deleted their accounts in the process or not is often hard to tell) and go elsewhere. I find it interesting that the elsewhere of choice (there are actually quite a few) is Mastodon.

Mastodon is probably the largest single player in what insiders call “the Fediverse” because of the way that Mastodon (and some others like it) operate. Mastodon as a whole is actually a collection of seperate Mastodon servers (“instances”) operating as peers over a protocol called ActivityPub. Each instance controls who can join and who can be blocked, from individuals up to whole other instances. From what I’ve read, there is a great deal of blocking going on right now. And that’s all to the good; that’s what federation is for: local (rather than central) control. If you don’t like the people on one instance, go find another. If you keep getting blocked, maybe you need some quality mirror time.

There are three major problems with the Fediverse vis-a-vis Twitter:

  • If members start doing illegal things (like posting child sexual abuse material) the operators of the instance may be held responsible by law enforcement. Musk has people paid to moderate against this. Moderation is neither cheap nor free. I doubt that more than a tiny fraction of Fediverse instances have the resources to police such things.
  • Similarly, if members of an instance start posting copyrighted material, the operators of the instance have to have a way to handle DMCA takedown notices. Disney in particular has no mercy about such things, and infringement can be very costly. Again, guarding against illegal activity takes paid staff once an instance has more than two or three dozen members.
  • No matter what the Fediverse does or how large it gets, members of any given instance will not have the reach that they did on Twitter. There are no real metrics on how much reach some instances have, given all the bitching and blocking going on right now. In a couple of years we may know more. But given the nature of federation, measuring reach may simply be impossible.

Although I like federation as a concept, to me these downsides are showstoppers. I wish all the Mastodoners good luck. They’re going to need it.

I do have some predictions about Twitter for the new year:

  • Fairly soon, Elon Musk will hire someone who understands his management style as CEO of Twitter, and that individual will do what Musk wants. This is what all the nonsense about Twitter deciding via poll whether he should step down or not was about. He knew damned well he was going to step down as CEO in favor of a hand-picked successor. He has a lot of other irons in some very big fires.
  • The rules governing moderation will be clarified.
  • Twitter will establish a policy of not cooperating with governments in censoring viewpoints or “misinformation” that cooks down to things governments don’t like.
  • The saner people who bailed out of Twitter for the greater Fediverse will (quietly) come back to Twitter once they realize how few people can hear them.
  • The genuine headcases (most of them celebrities) will stay away. Or let us fervently hope.

I like Twitter, though I don’t spend a great deal of time on it. That said, I predict that this will be the best Twitter year since…ever!

The Mastodon Hunters

Well, I didn’t expect this, though I probably should have: A huge wave of former Twitter bluechecks and their followers have descended upon the Mastodon Federation, and–sunuvugun–they’ve started throwing spears at each other.

First of all, for those who have never heard of it: Mastodon is a social network modeled superficially on Twitter. It’s distributed, in that anyone can create a server instance of Mastodon, and connect to other Mastodon instances through an underlying protocol called ActivityPub. It’s very cool in its own way, and brings other (ancient) distributed social networks to mind, like Fidonet and Usenet. Within a server instance, members can post and read tweet-ish things called “toots.” Theoretically, any Mastodon instance (there about 7,000 of them) can trade traffic with any other Mastodon instance. Content moderation, codes of conduct, and control of what other instances can share traffic are entirely under the control of the members of a given instance. There is no centralized management. Each instance governs itself.

So NPR’s Adam Davidson set up a Mastodon instance called journa.host, mostly targeted at journalists fleeing Twitter. The journa.host instance now has about 1,600 members, though that number doubtless changes hourly. I’ve cruised some of the posts, and it looks a great deal like the sort of stuff we’ve always seen on Twitter: some interesting, some blather, and some complaining about the indiscretions of others. Here’s the weird part: Almost immediately, fights broke out.

Maybe that’s not weird. Maybe that’s just how social networks operate. In this case, it had repercussions: A great many Mastodon instances, told by one malcontent or another that journa.host was transphobic, decided to block journa.host entirely. If you read Twitter, look for posts by @ajaromano, a bluecheck journalist who’s been trying to figure out why journa.host is being blocked so much. There’s a threadroll here. She’s trying to pin down what makes journa.host transphobic, and so far she got nuthin. Someone linked to a transphobic NYT article? Seriously? The NYT?

What this leaves us with is basically a Twitter-flavored forum with 1,600 members, shunned by all the other major Mastodon instances. So much for having 75,000 followers.

Now, why? I seriously doubt journa.host did anything transphobic or Aja Romero would have found it by now. I think the problem is much simpler and more mundane: Longtime Mastodon users think the wave after wave of Twitter refugees are ruining the neighborhood. The federation network can’t crash, but massive activity spikes can slow things down enough so that it might as well have crashed.

I’m not sure why it should be so, but I’ve read that Mastodon leans left. So in a way it’s the perfect solution for people who hate Elon Musk enough to bail on Twitter, leaving their blue checks and their thousands of followers behind. Alas, right now it looks a lot like Mastodon’s fediverse is the Holy Roman Empire of social networks: thousands of dukedoms, city-states, and strange little scraps of intellectual backwaters and walled fiefdoms that just don’t talk to anybody else and occasionally start throwing rocks.

What happens next? Nobody’s saying it out loud, but I’ll hazard a guess: They’ll soon be back on Twitter. How soon? A month or so. We won’t know for sure because they won’t want to admit it, but Twitter is successful because it’s big. Musk will eventually figure out how to make it pay. The real interesting question is what shape the Mastodon fediverse will be in come the new year. What’s the sound of one instance banning?

Silence. Heh.

The Great 2022 Mastodon Migration

My God, you’d think the world was ending. The screaming, yowling, weeping and rolling on the floor in the wake of Twtter’s acquisition by Elon Musk is something to see. I’m interested in Twitter because for me it fills a need: quick announcements, wisecracks, indie book promo, Odd Lots-style links to things I find interesting or useful….so what’s not to like?

One thing, and one thing only: disagreement.

But that’s the viewpoint of the bluechecks, not me or most of my friends. The bluechecks are fleeing Twitter. Where to? Mastodon, mostly. Poor Mastodon. Gazillions of new users are arriving, with so little computer smarts that they can’t figure out how to use the platform. Mastodon has a lot of promise. This is their chance to make the bigtime, instead of lurking in the shadows of all the monumentally larger social networks. I’m very curious to see what they make of it. I wonder if they understand the demands that will be made of them: Forbid disagreement with…anybody I don’t like.

There was a time when disagreement was a learning opportunity. Or most of it, anyway, at least disagreement among reasonably intelligent people. But that was way back in the ’70s. As we slid into the ’80s, disagreement became insult. I avoided disagreeing with people of a certain psychology, knowing that they’d just get bright red and scream at me before I ever had a chance to make a case for my own positions.

The ’80s were the era when, little by little, I stopped going to SF conventions. Why hang out with people who’ll jump down your throat at the slightest hint of disagreement? I missed the social element of conventions, but by 1985 or 86 cons had gotten so toxic I just stopped going.

(These days I go to one con a year: Libertycon, where I know I won’t get screamed at for having ideas at odds with the bluecheck zeitgeist.)

Now, in the Groaning Twenties, disagreement is first-degree murder. Or genocide. Or maybe the heat-death of the universe. Does it bother me? No. It makes me giggle. I’ve been called a racist and a fascist and a few other more peculiar things. Like I said: I giggle. It’s all so silly. I still write subversive hard SF and program in Pascal. I am what I am. You can’t change me by screaming at me.

Why have I gone on at such length about the disagreement phenomenon? Easy: After years of being a staunchly defended echo chamber, Twitter is now trying to become a profit-making enterprise. I used to pay for CompuServe. If Twitter becomes a paid service, I will pay a (reasonable) price for a subscription. I get the impression (and admit I could be wrong; we’ll see) that Twitter will moderate people who use dirty words to denigrate other people…but won’t ban those posting links to peer-reviewed research showing that Ivermectin is an effective broad-spectrum antiviral.

That would be a tectonic change in the social media universe. It’s going to take a few years for Elon Musk to figure out how to do it. But that dude can orbit 52 telecomm satellites in one damfool rocket…I’m not willing to speculate on what he can’t do.

So. Has Twitter changed since the Great Mastodon Migration? A little. In scrolling down through my Twitter posts over the last month or so, I see a few replies have gone missing, doubtless originally posted by people who are now tooting their little hearts out over on Mastodon. With only a few exceptions, the bluechecks have very little to say that isn’t abject fury at people who disagree with them. (And to think I almost majored in journalism, sheesh.)

Musk is laying off thousands of people. The firm can either survive without them or fold. Me, I’m pretty sure the whole damned operation could be run by a thousand or so good, smart, devoted staffers. The trick is to find and motivate such staffers. I suspect Elon Musk can do it.

In the meantime, the bluechecks are fleeing. G’bye, guys! Have fun over on Mastodon! Here on Twitter we’re still having a wonderful time! (I’d say, “glad you’re not here,” but I’m too nice a guy to do that. What else could you expect from a Pascal programmer?)

For Validation, Try Federation

Somebody wrote an obnoxious hate-piece over on The Verge some days back, welcoming Elon Musk to Twitter Hell. The essay is for the most part corrosive nonsense, but the piece does have an insight or two. The primary one is true, and subtle to the point where I doubt most people ever give it much thought: What social networks sell is valildation.

In other words, people gather on social networks to feel good about themselves. The network accomplishes this by censoring any voices that disagree with network members. Remember the days when disagreement was a learning opportunity? I do. Even polite disagreement is now “literal violence,” at least to the cohort desperately lacking self-esteem.

What Musk does to Twitter won’t be known for awhile. I’m guessing that people will no longer be banned for politely questioning conventional wisdom, like posting links to evidence that Ivermectin actually does have strong antiviral properties. Ditto HCQ. Why linking to a peer-reviewed scientific paper should be blanket-bombed as “misinformation” is simple: “Misinformation” now means “anything I or my tribe disagree with.” If Musk can call a halt to that, it will have been worth every nickel of his $44B. What it means, however, is that Twitter will become a network that does not specialize in validating its members by silencing their critics. If those seeking validation flee to another network, that’s a good thing. I generate my own validation. So do most of my friends. I guess not everyone can do that.

The real problem with moderation is that it tends to bias network traffic toward viewpoints the moderators favor. Worse, there’s one body of algorithms to moderate the whole damned network. Unless you’re in the favored cohort, you’re out of luck.

There is something called Mastodon that almost nobody talks about. (More on Mastodon here.) It’s a social network composed of independently hosted social networks, joined loosely through a mechanism called federation. Every instance (which is what they call an individual Mastodon server) can have its own moderation guidelines, and everybody can block anybody they don’t want to hear from. This sounds like the perfect solution: On Mastodon, nobody can hear you disagreeing with them if they don’t want to. Shazam! Validation!

I don’t have time to even join a Mastodon instance, much less host my own. If you’ve had experience there, by all means describe it in the comments. I bring it up here today because of an article I read about Twitter founder Jack Dorsey: He’s creating a new social network to rival Twitter. He’s doing it with federation. It’s called Bluesky, and it just opened registration for beta testers. It uses a protocol developed in-house called the Authenticated Transfer Protocol (ATP.)

I’ve been reading the news about Bluesky for the past few days. There’s not much hard information yet, but it sounds a great deal like a slightly more centralized Mastodon. I could be wrong about that. Again, hard data is scarce. I did notice that nowhere in the articles I’ve read is there any significant mention of moderation. That’s a very sore spot for a greeat many people, primarily those who just want validation, or tribalists who want to limit user perspectives to their own template. One hopes that Dorsey can get past this hunger for censoring The Other, and actually create a space where literally all perspectives can be heard.

We’ll see.

Sudowrite, Egad

I got wind of an online AI thingie called Sudowrite this morning. It’s a sort of writing engine that takes a piece of writing you’ve started and then runs with it. I’ve always been interested in AI, including AI creativity (“The Steel Sonnets,” “Sympathy on the Loss of One of Your Legs”) and used to play around with Eliza back when Eliza was young and hot. Well, here we are, in 2022. The supermarket is fresh out of Soylent Green, but by gully, Sudowrite is here, waiting for me to get stuck on something and yell for its help.

What I did was not quite that, exactly. For my first test I gave Sudowrite the initial few paragraphs of my weird fantasy short story, “Whale Meat.” Then I told it to go off and do its best to continue the story. First, the text from the current version of the story, which is published in my book Cold Hands and Other Stories. After the second horizontal rule, behold Sudowrite’s run with what I admit was a very peculiar football.


Sitting on a cold bus-bench at night-west I wished I had never been born a witch. I had just killed a man and Mara wanted whale meat. But I am on the canvas. I am not the painter. Creator forgive me. We had to stay somewhere. It would have been in the park with the ice if Lennie had not looked in my eyes in the public library and half-snerfed my pain.

There is no word for Lennie now. Years ago he would have been a hippie. Longer ago, a beatnik. Further back into time’s fog, a bohemian. Head. Weirdo. I don’t know what people call them now. Freak, perhaps. But he knew we were tired and homeless, and told us to stay with him.

His apartment was a hole. I was too exhausted to snerf him. He gave us hot coffee and a blanket and we slept on ragged foam rubber with the roaches. My dreams floated in hunger, tormented by Mara’s request for whale meat. She told me without words. I snerfed the picture in her head, a gray sea-mountain blowing steam from its nostril above moonlit swells.

I woke from restless dreams in a sweat of fear and anger. Some part of me never sleeps, and knew Mara was in danger. In yellow candlelight Lennie was bending over Mara, knife in his hand above her belly swollen with James. His eyes were slits and he chanted a language I never learned. I snerfed him. Some bad acid (is it still called acid?) was eating away at him and leaving only insanity in its wake. Snerfing him gave me a grim glimpse of the future: He would kill Mara and James in seconds. The knife began to circle for its last time, like a live thing in his shaking hands.

I had to time-opt. The universe ground to a slow halt around us while I dug up power from my heart-place, and zotted him. Lennie’s poor head shorted out like power lines blown away in a windstorm, with sparks and shrieks of inner agony.


His blood froze in his veins, his skin burned and turned black, his body dropped like a puppet with its strings cut.

I pulled Mara and James from the bed, and backed out of the stinking room, stumbling into the street, breathing deeply of the winter air. We hurried away past the sleeping city, three in a row. I held them in a circle of toil’d air. The sad lights of the city slid behind. We were two hundred miles away before Mara spoke.

I don’t mind you killing Lennie, I snerfed. He would have killed us.

I was just defending myself, I snerfed.

So were the people in the Warsaw Ghetto, Mara snerfed.

I walked faster. She didn’t snerf me.

The river was frozen solid. I cut off a section of the ice, and chopped it into chunks with the edge of my mind. I piled the chunks


Does this work? Dunno. I admit I was curious where Yonnie piled the chunks of ice, but it only gives you so many words at a time. Sudowrite half-understood my made-up word “snerf,” which is a witch-power, essentially telepathy. I forgive Sudowrite for not knowing that James was still in Mara’s uterus, where he’d been for five years. (Witches are pregnant for seven years, and James still has two years to go.)

Now, this isn’t the fairest of tests. I’m going to dig around in my notes files for an opener, ideally one I abandoned for some reason, and then go back and forth with Sudowrite to see if the one-and-a-half of us can actually finish a story that doesn’t read like a Salvador Dali painting looks.

I’ll let you how it goes.

SASM Crashes on “Section” in a Comment

As most of you know, I’m grinding along on the fourth edition of my book Assembly Language Step By Step, updated to cover x64. I’m using the SASM IDE for the example code because it provides seamless visual debugging using a front-end to gdb. Back in 2009 I created the third edition, and incorporated the Insight debugger front end for visual debugging. A month or so after the book appeared, Insight vanished from the Linux world. I tried a lot of debuggers and editors before I discovered SASM. It’s treated me very well.

Until today.

Now, I’ve been programming since 1970, in a lot of languages, on a lot of platforms, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Finding those mistakes is what debugging is about. Today, I was working on a short example program for the book. When I finished it, I clicked the Build button. It built as it should. I needed to single-step it to verify something about local labels, but when I clicked the debug button, SASM crashed. As Shakespeare would have put it, SASM died and gave no sign. The whole IDE just vanished. I tried it again. Same thing. I rebooted Linux. Same thing.

Puzzled doesn’t quite capture it. I loaded another example program from the book. It built and debugged without any trouble. I loaded example after example, and they all worked perfectly. Then I copied the source from the malfunctioning example into a file called crashtest.asm, and began cutting things out of it. I got it down to a start label and a SYSCALL to the exit function. Still blew SASM away.

Most of what was left was comments. I did a ctrl-X to cut the comment header onto the clipboard. Save, build, debug–and it worked perfectly.No crash, no errors, no problemo.

Soooooooo…….something in a comment header crashed the IDE? That would be a new one. So I dropped the comment header back into the file from the clipboard and started cutting out lines, one by one. I narrowed it down to one comment line, properly begun with a semicolon and containing no weird characters. The line that crashed SASM was this:

;         .bss sections.

I cut out the spaces and the period. No change. I cut out “.bss”. No change. I was left with the word “sections.” On a hunch, I lopped off the “s”. No change. Then I lopped off the “n”. Suddenly, it all worked.

SASM was crashing on a comment containing the word “section.” I verified by deleting the line entirely and typing it in again. Crash!

I stared at the damned thing for a long time. I loaded a couple of my other examples, and dropped the offending comment header into them. No problems. Twenty minutes later, I noticed something: In crashtest.asm, the fragment of comment header text was below the three section markers:

section.bss
section.data
section.text

; section

Now, in my other examples, the ones that didn’t crash, the comment header was above the three section markers. So I went back to crashtest.asm, and moved the comment header to the very beginning of the file, above the section markers. Suddenly everything worked. No crashes.

WTF? I assembled the offending crashtest binary from the command line without trouble. I loaded it into gdb from the command line and messed with it. No trouble.

I wrote this entry not for answers so much as to provide a report that other SASM users can find in search engines. There are things about SASM that aren’t ideal. Sure. But I’ve never seen it crash before. I’ll see if I can send the crashtest.asm to the people who created SASM. I’m sure it’s just a bug. But it’s the weirdest damfool bug I’ve uncovered in a whole lot of years!

Good-Bye Guidestones

Somebody blew up the Georgia Guidestones last night. “What the hell are the Georgia Guidestones?” you might (reasonably) ask.

Ha! Exactly the point I’m about to make.

Ok. Here’s the short form: Back in the late ’70s, some rich person or group managed to persuade the premier Georgia marble quarry and monument builder to cut out five 19-foot-tall marble slabs (plus a capstone) and carve a sort of New Age Ten Commandments onto the stones in English, Spanish, Hebrew, Hindi, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Swahili.

This was no small project. The point man behind the Guidestones was one Robert C. Christian, a pseudonym that he demanded never be connected with another name. He had truckloads of money and spent it liberally. In 1980 it was complete. The land had been purchased from a local farmer and was eventually deeded to Elbert County.

Here’s what’s on the stones, in case you (reasonably) don’t care enough to google it:

  1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
  2. Guide reproduction wisely – improving fitness and diversity.
  3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
  4. Rule passion – faith – tradition – and all things with tempered reason.
  5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
  6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
  7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
  8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
  9. Prize truth – beauty – love – seeking harmony with the infinite.
  10. Be not a cancer on the Earth – Leave room for nature – Leave room for nature.

It was in the news for a little while. ’80s New Agers went nuts for it. Then, little by little, the Guidestones were more or less forgotten. I read about them in the early 80s in one New Age book or another, then didn’t see anything significant about the stones until I read this morning that somebody tried to dynamite the damned things, and mostly succeeded.

There’s more details on the stones themselves here, if you’re interested. I did enjoy the somewhat goofier entry in The Creepy Catalog a little more.

Like most weird things, it has a low-profile fanbase who have been endlessly arguing about whether it was the Freemasons or the Rosicrucians or the Priory of Sion or maybe Ted Turner or Shirley MacLaine behind it. It’s been called satanic. It’s been called Roman Catholic, mostly because of the name R. C. Christian. Reaction to the stones in some quarters has been spectacularly unhinged–read the Creepy Catalog article to see what I mean.

The obvious thing to be taken away from the history of the guidestones is that they have accrued a lot of enemies, and eventually, one of those enemies would be tempted to strike back. The inscription is the sort of syrupy New World Order nonsense that was very hip back in the ’80s. Sure, it’s all upbeat and idealistic in a let’s-all-sit-together-and-sing-Kumbaya sort of way. Everybody be everybody’s friend, ok? Let’s all abandon our native languages and join our high school Esperanto club! Let’s all guide our reproduction…er, wut? There’s a word for that: Eugenics. Been tried. Millions died. Balance personal rights with social duties? This means, historically, that there are no rights, and social duties are forced on ordinary people by some ruling elite with all the guns.

In other words, the usual deadly Marxist claptrap. That, I think, is why the stones have been mostly forgotten. Reading the inscriptions again made me groan. Easy for you to say, Mr. Christian. If I were to read them too often, I would giggle.

Now, some odd thoughts:

  • Keeping secrets is hard. Especially huge, expensive secrets. I find it suspicious that the responsible entities have never been outed. There are theories, mostly tinfoil-hat stuff, but no hard facts.
  • Supposedly, Mr. Christian and the banker he worked with communicated via mail. Letters from Mr. Christian were always sent from a different place. So…where did the banker guy send his letters to?
  • This was all done during a period now 40+ years in the past, and according to Mr. Christian, planned 20 years before that. My guess is that most of the insiders are long dead. Who’s keeping the secrets now? There are either second-generation insiders keeping secrets, or they took the secrets to their graves.
  • Or…was the bombing a publicity stunt?

Think about it: Just like your elders, you spent your life and all your heavenly idealism putting this thing together without revealing whodunit. 40 years later, the whole shebang is an asterisk in some book on the backroads of Georgia. Honestly, I think more people have heard of the Mystery Spot than the Georgia Guidestones.

So what better way to get people talking about the Guidestones again than to create a conspiracy to knock them down? #guidestones is trending on Twitter now. Supposedly local government knocked the other stones down a few hours ago to keep them from falling on feckless tourists. Also supposedly, the cops fingered a perp, though about that I see nothing firm.

But here’s the deal: People are talking about the Guidestones again! Social media is making its message immortal. I consider it a terrible waste of good granite, but it’ll be in the news for a few days until the next mass shooting or Congress impeaches Trump again. Given the silliness of the whole business, that might be the best that the shadowy Guidestone conspiracy can hope for.

BTW, the Guidestones were not the American Stonehenge. That honor goes to Carhenge, which I visited with Carol and some friends when we drove to Alliance, Nebraska for the 2017 total solar eclipse. I’ll tell you this: Nobody is gonna knock that down anytime soon!

Is Substack Special?

Sometime very early this year, probably January, a reader asked me in an email what I thought of Substack, and if Contra would be better off there. She likes my work, and told me she “binged” on my old entries. At the time, I’d heard of Substack but never looked at it. Over the last couple of days I googled on the site, went there, and learned a great deal about it.

The answer is no. I’ll be 70 in three weeks, and I don’t have the stamina to try to blog for money. Ten or fifteen years ago, I would have been sorely tempted. No more. I have my loyal readers, and I don’t need the money that badly. But…but…if I were on Substack, I’d be famous!

No. Anybody can be on Substack. If I were already famous, I might try it. But I’m not. (I do have a certain fame. It’s five miles deep and three inches wide.)

Basically, Substack is Kindle for newsletters. And newsletters in this context are long-form blog entries. You can charge readers a subscription fee, minimum $5/month, or any dollar amount greater than that. (Newsletters can also be free if you prefer.) Readers can then read your entries on the Web, or on the iPhone app. (They’ve been a thing since 2017, and they don’t yet have an Android app? That’s just, well, stupid. They say they’re working on one. Sheesh, I hope so!)

Substack has thousands of newsletters, and as of the end of 2021, over a million paid subscribers. The top 10 writers in aggregate make $20M per year. That’s better money than I’ve ever made doing anything. But if you look at who the top ten writers are, it becomes painfully obvious: All of them were famous working in other venues long before Substack ever existed.

I’ve read Andrew Sullivan sporadically for a lot of years. I read him on the late suck.com back in the ’90s and lots of other places since. He’s the #5 writer on Substack. He’s interesting, funny, and doesn’t bend the knee to partisan bitchlords demanding unquestioning allegiance. I haven’t subscribed yet, but I may. He’s damned good.

Other writers I’ve heard of and read elsewhere include Bari Weiss, Matthew Iglesias, Matt Taibbi, and Glenn Greenwald. (Greenwald is #1 on Substack.) A chap I know, Tom Knighton, has three different Substack newsletters. (You’re not limited to one.) I’m sure other people out on the edges of my circles have Substack newsletters. (Have one? Let me know!) However, I’m guessing that there’s an 80/20 rule on Substack (or maybe a 90/10 rule) stating that 20% of the writers make 80% of the money. That’s the rule in a lot of business models, Kindle included.

That may just be the way the universe works. You have to build a platform, as the agents put it. In other words, you have to promote yourself, especially if you don’t already have a pre-existing reputation and thousands of cheering fans. As some of my self-published author friends on Kindle have learned, you sometimes have to do so much promoting that you don’t have the time (or the energy) to write new material.

So I won’t be there. I’m having too much fun on 20M and writing new SF. What, then, do I think? No question: It’s worth it, if you’re young and energetic and can write interesting text on a definable topic on a regular basis that at least a few people might pay $5 a month for. I have one concern about Substack’s viability: They do not currently discriminate against conservative writers, or centrist writers who don’t care for progressive dudgeon. Apparently a number of progressive writers have ditched Substack because–the horror!–Substack doesn’t censor conservative viewpoints.

Not yet. If they ever start, it’ll be the end of them. In the meantime, you have your choice of a very broad spectrum of very good writers. A lot of the posts are free, and you can sample any author you want. I’m budgeting myself four paid subscriptions, not because it’s expensive, but because there are only so many hours in a day.

Go take a look. I was moderately impressed.