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Review: Where Is Everybody? by Stephen Webb

41oxPnAPxHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI have a lot of books. In general, when I buy (or somehow acquire) a book I read it right away. I realized a few weeks ago that although my sister gave me a copy of Ingathering by Zenna Henderson some years back, it got shelved without being read. My bad. My review is in my entry for 2/9/2021.

So I went hunting for other books in this situation. The Principle of Mediocrity applies here: If there was one unread book on my shelves, there will probably be others. It didn’t take long to find one: Where Is Everybody? by Stephen Webb. It’s not a new book. It was published in 2002, and sent to me for review in 2003 by an editor at Copernicus Books, Paul Farrell. 2002 was not a good year for me, for reasons you know already. In a way, it remains the annus horribilis of my life. In 2003 we moved away from Arizona to get away from constant reminders of the horribilis. (For newcomers: 2002 was the year my publishing company here in Arizona crashed and burned, through no fault of my own. Long story.) So I guess it’s unsurprising that the book went onto the shelves unread. In fact, it probably went straight into a box. I (finally) finished it an hour or so ago.

As an SF writer, it’s a topic I have a keen interest in: aliens, and the cogent question asked by physicist Enrico Fermi way back in 1944: If there is life elsewhere in the universe, why haven’t we encountered evidence of it yet?

Good question. A lot of really smart people have grappled with it, but the (obvious) spoiler is that we don’t know. (Yet.) Where Is Everybody? is a systematic presentation of fifty proposed explanations for why we’ve not encountered the Galactic Confederation. The author gives each a number and takes us through them in order, explaining why none of them really answers Fermi’s question. For example, Solution 20 is “We Have Not Listened Long Enough.” There’s a lot of Universe, and we’ve only been listening to “waterhole” frequencies for an insignificant amount of time, compared to the lifetime of our galaxy. Solution 44 is “The Prokaryote-Eukaryote Transition Is Rare.” That was a new one for me (biology is not my field) and involves the jump between primordial single-celled life and the more complex form of single-celled life that eventually evolved into multicellular organisms. We can’t explain how it happened, but somehow it did. Was it a fluke? Don’t know.

Stephen Webb separates the 50 proposed explanations of the Fermi Question into three broad groups: 1. They Are Already Here. 2. They Exist But Have Not Yet Communicated. And 3. They Do Not Exist. A lot of the issues are things I had read about elsewhere. A surprising number were new to me. Along the way, he talks about the Drake Equation and how it relates to the probability of finding intelligent life beyond Earth. In a sense, most of the issues discussed in the book either represent existing terms of the Drake Equation, or could be considered new ones.

All the usual explanations are taken up: berserkers, species suicide here on Earth, the Rare Earth hypothesis (which is actually taken up in several parts, each with its own number and section in the book) gamma ray bursters, asteroid bombardment, giant planets in the wrong places, lack of a Moon, lack of plate tectonics in most rocky planets, and so on.

A few of the proposed solutions may strike some as outre. Solution 7 is “The Planetarium Hypothesis,” which proposes that we are living in a simulated universe, with the superhuman aliens behind the scenes, pulling the levers and observing us. That’s an interesting one because it can be disproven, using what we know about the data and energy requirements of a simulation as good as our reality suggests. Solution 8 is “God Exists,” and He set things up just right for the universe to evolve us–and perhaps created an infinitude of other universes either sterile or fine-tuned to benefit other intelligent life. I’m reminded of Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 pseudo-novel Star Maker, in which an unthinkably powerful being creates a series of universes, each more “mature” than the last. (I found the book largely impenetrable when I read it at 17. It may be worth another look 51 years later. If nothing else, I’ve developed patience in the interim.)

Webb’s writing is refreshingly clear and easygoing. He’s a natural explainer, in the same way that Isaac Asimov was. He cites a lot of researchers and their research as he explains each topic, and there is a fat section of references and pointers to further readings at the back of the book. I came away from it feeling satisfied with the time I spent, and better still, that I learned something–a lot of somethings, in fact–along the way.

Webb does not intend to prove (or disprove) the existemce of Extrarrestial Civilizations (ETCs). The point of the book (or the joker in the deck, if you’re a fervent believer in ETCs) is that we do not have anything close to enough data to form a conclusion. He does confirm the feeling I had as he explained one possible solution after another: There are a lot of very difficult hurdles between a sterile planet and a starfaring civilization. By the end, I felt that he had added a good fifteen or twenty new terms to the Drake Equation. If those new terms are as difficult as our research suggests, yes, we are indeed an exceedingly unlikely Cosmic Fluke, and probably alone in the universe.

This doesn’t bother me, even as a science fiction writer. When I was a teen and for a few years afterward, I wrote stories about aliens. However, I’ve judged only two of them good enough to put before the public: Firejammer and “Born Again, With Water.” My conclusion is mostly this: If intelligent alien life exists elsewhere in the universe and we come upon them, we may not have much to talk about. We may not be able to talk to them at all. Shared experience, even the shared experience of being born into an orderly and comprehensible universe, may be impossible across the gulf to an alien mind.

That is, unless you count my Metaspace Saga, in which aliens create our universe as a way of obtaining a better random-number generator. Except–they’re not really aliens. No more spoilers. I’m working on it. There are some hints in The Cunning Blood. The rest will come out eventually.

In the meantime, I powerfully recommend Stephen Webb’s book. What I didn’t notice until I went up to schnarf the book’s cover image for this entry is that he published a second edition in 2015–and now he’s got seventy-five proposed solutions to tackle. I’ll pick that one up eventually. In the meantime, I’m scanning my shelves for other gems that may have been hiding from me. They’re in there somewhere. Like I said, I have a lot of books.

Review: Ingathering by Zenna Henderson

ingathering.jpgSome years ago, my sister gave me a copy of the NESFA Press hardcover edition of Ingathering, a collection of all of Zenna Henderson’s stories of The People, including a story timeline tying them together into a loose history. It came to me during a turbulent period of my life, and for some reason (Losing my publishing company? Moving to Colorado? Retirement? Moving back?) I never just sat down and read it. For that I apologize to her. I just finished it this afternoon. It was well worth the time and effort.

The stories are old; some were published the year I was born. (Zenna was born in 1917 and died in 1983.) I read many but not all of them before. I still have the MMPBs I bought in high school and college, and I’m glad I don’t have to read them again. My new reading glasses won’t be in for a week or two, and these old eyes just can’t process such small print by themselves anymore, quite apart from the fact that simply turning the now-yellowed pages would probably destroy the books.

If you’ve never heard of Henderson’s People, here’s the quick summary: In 1890, six starships full of the inhabitants of a planet they simply call The Home flee the planet, which is inexplicably disintegrating from no stated cause. One of these starships attempts a landing on Earth and miscalculates re-entry. An unstated number of People leave the big ship in lifeboats, and (some) land successfully in various places on Earth. The big ship crashes in (I think) the American West, still in 1890. The People Saga (my coinage) is about how the People struggle within a culture that treats them with suspicion and burns some as witches. For the People have what they call Signs and Persuasions, basically (to use that fine old ’50s term) psi powers. No complete catalog is given, but there are Sorters (intuitive psychiatrists), Motivers (telekinetics), Seers (prophets), Lifters (self-telekinetics), and a fair number of others, including one, called The Francher Kid, who can make musical instruments play themselves. All are telepathic. Over the years (the timeline runs from 1890 to 1970) the lifeboat refugees who survived the landing gradually find one another, and with greater or lesser success melt into human society.

The People are physically indistinguishable from us Earthlings, close enough to interbreed. Although not Christian, they worship a trinitarian God whom they call The Name, The Power, and The Presence. They are generous, kind, enthusiastic, helpful, and for the most part what Earthlings should be but aren’t. Friendship matters to them, and as you’ve heard me say many times, friendship is the cornerstone of the human spirit.

The People stories have been criticized as mawkish, corny, sentimental, maudlin, and repetitive. Many are tear-jerkers. Nearly all are surprisingly moving, especially if you’ve purged the cowardice some call cynicism from your life. (I have.) I put the box of Kleenex that lives on my desk on the table next to my reading chair. Yes, I needed it. A few of them made me want to stand up and cheer. That’s one reason I read them all again, after almost fifty years. There are no downer endings. Every single one is upbeat and affirming. And boy, considering the shitshow we’re all still in the middle of, I needed that.

Many of the stories are told from the viewpoint of one-room schoolhouse teachers in what is almost certainly Arizona, where Zenna Henderson was born, lived, wrote, and died. That’s what she was. Having been a teacher, she wrote from the heart about the very, very human business of learning. And not just numbers or words, but what’s right and what’s wrong, coming to know and growing into your own “magic powers,” how we are all very much in this together, and how together we can make it all work.

I’m still a little surprised that the only TV/cinema treatment of the People is a now mostly forgotten 1972 made-for-TV movie starring William Shatner and Kim Darby. (You can watch it on YouTube, if you can stand resolution that low.) I saw it in 1972 and enjoyed it. If anything deserves a 2021 reboot, The People Saga does.

I have a few reservations about the People Saga:

  • The People are just too damned perfect. Ok, there are a couple of stories showing members of the People acting selfishly, but for the most part, damn, if you need a hand they’ll fly half their settlement over to get you through a crisis.
  • Hard SF guy that I am, I wanted to know how they were so genetically identical to us that we could interbreed. Henderson shows no lack of imagination. It could be that some ancient godlike race scattered humans across the galaxy and let them grow into their powers. We chose machinery. The People chose…themselves. She could have given us a quick paragraph clarifying the matter.
  • Similarly, planets don’t just alluvasudden fall apart. There’s a whole well-known catalog of possible cosmic catastrophes. I wanted to know which one prompted the People’s star-crossed star crossing to Earth. Granted, that’s just me. Henderson provides some surreal hints that The People had forgotten too much about science and technology, and that The Power had to force them to remember what they’d lost, even if it meant scragging their planet and sending them across the galaxy to live among primitives who’d just as soon kill you as look at you.
  • Is FTL one of their psi powers? Damn, if I could only have one, that’d be the one. But there’s no indication of how their starships trumped Einstein.
  • The stories get a little repetitive at times. This is what worries me about my own Drumlins Saga. I don’t want the stories to plow the same field over and over. On the flipside, even when she tells the same story for the seventh time, it’s still affirming and still makes me reach for the Kleenex. She knew what she was doing, and was damned good at it.

I grinned to see this in Zenna’s Wikipedia bio: She was buried in Benson, Arizona.

Anything else I might say would include spoilers. I loved the book, and will read it again if life ever gets a little too depressing. If you need a mood-lift and don’t mind reaching for the Kleenex when necessary, well, here it is. Highly recommended.

The Raspberry Pi Pico…and a Tiny Plug-In Pi

Yesterday the Raspberry Pi Foundation announced the Raspberry Pi Pico, at the boggling temporary low price of…$4US. It’s definitely a microcontroller on the order of an Arduino rather than the high-end 8GB RPi that might stand in for a complete desktop mobo. And that’s ok by me. The chip at its heart is new: the RP2040, a single-chip microcontroller designed to interface with mainstream Raspberry Pi boards, and lots of other things.

Raspberry-Pi-Pico-at-an-angle-500x357.png

Now, what caught my attention in the page linked above was the list of partner products made by other firms using the same RP2040 chip. Scroll down to the description of the SparkFun MicroMod RP2040 proccesor board. It’s still on preorder, but look close and see what’s there: an edge connector…on a board the size of a quarter! That’s not precisely what I was wishing for in my previous entry, but it’s certainly the right idea.

17720-MicroMod_RP2040_Processor_Board-04.jpg

As I understand it, SparkFun is turning the RPi-wearing-a-hat on its ear, into a hat-wearing-an-RPi. The M.2 interface used in the product is actually a standard developed some years back for use in connecting SSDs to tiny slots on mobos. I knew about M.2, but wouldn’t have assumed you could mount a CPU-add-in board using it. Well, shazam! Done deal.

The RP2040 chip is a little sparse for my tastes. I want something I can run FreePascal/Lazarus on, over a real OS. I don’t see anything in the M.2 spec that would prevent a much more powerful processor board talking to a device (like a keyboard, TV or monitor) across M.2. The big problem with building a high-end RPi into things is keeeping it cool. The Foundation is aware of this, and did a very good job in the $100US Raspberry Pi 400 Pi-in-a-keyboard. (This teardown and review is worth a look if you’re interested in the platform at all. The author of the teardown goosed the board to 2.147 GHz and it didn’t cook itself.)

I fully intend to get an RPi 400, though I’ve been waiting awhile to see if there will soon be an RPi 800 keyboard combo with an 8GB board instead of 4GB. Given the price, well hell, I might as well get the 4GB unit until an 8GB unit appears.

So consider my previous post overruled. It’s already been done. And I for one am going to watch this part of the RPi aftermarket very carefully!

Grundig Blaupunkt Luger Frug

The other day I was thinking back to what written material I had found the funniest in my life. A lot of it was Dave Barry, some Hitchiker’s Guide, some Keith Laumer, some Gene Shepherd, some Terry Pratchett, a crazy little ancient item called The Silly Book by Stoo Hamble, and then–words of fire appeared unbidden in my head:

Grundig blaupunkt luger frug
Watusi snarf wazoo
Nixon dirksen nasahist
Rebozo bugaloo

OMG! Unbeknownst to me, I had memorized a part of Bored of the Rings. And this is a good time to take up the topic of humor in fantasy and SF, since Bored of the Rings is now fifty years old.

I see in the book’s Amazon reviews that a lot of people thought it was hilarious when they were 12, and it falls flat now. Quite a few others had no idea why the book was supposed to be funny to begin with. Yes, it was funnier fifty years ago, granted. It was published when I was 16, in 1969. I was quite a Tolkien devotee by that time (I first read the trilogy in 1967) and not only did I think it was funny, I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever read.

I still have the 50-year-old MMPB. And I’m reading it, falling to pieces though it may be. Yes, it’s still funny. But I have the unfair advantage of an excellent memory for trivia. The problem with the book’s humor is that a lot of the things they’re making fun of no longer exist.

The four lines quoted above are what is written on the parody version of the One Ring. Every single word is real, and every single word meant something to most people in 1969. Fifty years later, I’d wager that all but the legendary Nixon have simply been forgotten.

The whole book gallops along that way: one 1969 cultural reference after another, interspersed with really obvious substitution parody and frat-boy crudities. I still enjoy it, but in a slightly guilty way that rubs my nose in the fact that I’m now 67. The best parts are in fact the original poetry and songs, which were parodies of style more than actual poems and songs. Another example, excerpted from a longer work that still makes me giggle:

Fearful were the chicken dwarves,
But mickle crafty too.
King Yellobac, their skins to save
The elves he tried to woo.

Sing: Twist-a-cap, reynoldswrap, gardol and duz
The elves he tried to woo.

Youngsters might be excused for being puzzled, even though they can look up all that crap on Google. The kicker is that they didn’t live the context, and in certain types of humor, context is everything. Broadcast TV ruled the world in 1969. There was (almost) no cable, and certainly nothing like our streaming services. The whole thing was supported by ads for minor products like toothpaste, not just luxury sedans and expensive pharmaceuticals. Ads seen several times an hour tend to stick in your head. So even if you never even once bought the products, you damned well knew what Gardol and Duz were. (I believe Reynolds Wrap is still a thing, though you don’t see TV commercials for it anymore.)

There are lots of ways to get a laugh. For simply exaggerating Tolkienesque imagery into absurdity and beyond, there’s little to match this longish paragraph, which comes at the climax of the story:

Black flags were raised in the black towers, and the gate opened like an angry maw to upchuck its evil spew. Out poured an army the likes of which was never seen. Forth from the gate burst a hundred thousand rabid narcs swinging bicycle chains and tire irons, followed by drooling divisions of pop-eyed changelings, deranged zombies, and distempered werewolves. At their shoulders marched eight score heavily armored griffins, three thousand goose-stepping mummies, and a column of abominable snowmen on motorized bobsleds; at their flanks tramped six companies of slavering ghouls, eighty parched vampires in white tie, and the Phantom of the Opera. Above them the sky was blackened by the dark shapes of vicious pelicans, houseflies the size of two-car garages, and Rodan the Flying Monster. Through the portals streamed more foes of various forms and descriptions, including a six-legged diplodocus, the Loch Ness Monster, King Kong, Godzilla, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Beast with One Million Eyes, the Brain from Planet Arous, three different subphyla of giant insects, the Thing, It, She, Them, and the Blob. The great tumult of their charge could have waked the dead, were they not already bringing up the rear.

Admit it: That’s funny, though it’s not a species of funny people do much anymore. In the book the authors dip into every humorous mechanism ever invented, right down to breaking the fourth wall, as was one character’s habit almost every time he appeared:

“We cannot stay here,” said Arrowroot.

“No,” agreed Bromosel, looking across the gray surface of the page to the thick half of the book still in the reader’s right hand. “We have a long way to go.”

This brand of humor is almost dead, which is a shame. Depending on my mood, I variously blame the Flynn Effect, more people going to college, political correctness (where nothing is ever funny) and a remarkably sour zeitgeist, considering that the economy is in better shape than it’s been since, well, Bored of the Rings was first published.

In truth, I think the core problem is that there is no longer a single culture in the US. Social networking (and networking generally) has allowed us to find our own culture among the dozens on offer somewhere or another online–and if we don’t find one to our liking, we just invent one. We all once knew what Gardol was. Today, hell, there are liberal and conservative grocery stores, and forty shelf-feet at Safeway dedicated to different balsamic vinegar SKUs.

Basically, when a hundred different cultures exist side by side, nothing will be funny to all of them because nothing is common to all of them. So cultural references are fraught. I’ve actually had to explain some of the gags in Ten Gentle Opportunities to its purchasers and while writing it I consciously avoided having the humor too closely tied to any one culture or era. Sure, I included a veiled reference to Flintstone Vitamins, which are themselves a cultural reference to a cartoon show that ended in freaking 1966. And “sweets baked by elves.” I’m sure we all know what that refers to. Don’t we? Don’t we?

Maybe we do now. In fifty years, we won’t. By then, people will have as much trouble with any and all 2019 humor as people today are having with Bored of the Rings. I’m certainly sure of one thing: A thousand years from now, J. R. R. Tolkien will be having the last laugh.

A Year and Change on APAP

A year ago this past May, one of my doctors suggested that my lack of energy might be due to sleep apnea. Carol verified this; she has heard me stop breathing numerous times while lying beside me in bed. The doc prescribed an at-home “headband” sleep study, which at least verified his suspicion of apnea. The device (which was just that: a headband with electrodes) recorded an AHI of 33. Basically, I would stop breathing 33 times an hour. This seemed excessive and still does, for reasons I’ll explain a little later. But the next step was obvious: He handed me a prescription for an APAP machine. “APAP” is an adjustable pressure CPAP. The machine senses your breathing, and sends enough air through the hose to keep you breathing, no more.

I shopped around online, and got an NOS (new, old stock) ResMed S10 Auto. It was half the price of a new machine, even though it was still sealed in its original packaging. I bought a couple of different masks, and gave them all a good shot.

At first it made me nuts. I have never been a strong sleeper, and having this thing strapped to my face all night kept me awake. The full-face mask that most people use was a non-starter. I used a few other types of mask, and finally found that I could actually sleep a little using a “nasal pillows” mask, which has these two little soft silicone pads on a single strap that goes behind your head. The two pads each has a tube protruding from the middle, and those tubes go into your nostrils, while the soft pads keeps a good seal. Ok, a reasonably good seal. I still have problems with leaks around the edges of the pads, but that doesn’t negate the machine’s effectiveness.

It still kept me awake. So the doc put me on a new sleeping pill called Belsomra (Suvorexant) which, rather than sedating you, helps neutralize stimuli that prevent you from sleeping–like an APAP mask. And damn, it worked! I slept better than I had in a long time, with no interruptions but my two canonical bathroom breaks.

With the machine in operation, I was throwing just a few “events” every night. There are several kinds, and I don’t have the space to describe them all here. My personal favorite is hypopnea, which is shallow breathing, not airway obstruction. The doc said it doesn’t interrupt sleep. Some of the others I’m still not sure I understand, like Cheyne-Stokes Respiration; but that’s ok, as I think I’ve had it exactly once in thirteen months.

The S10 records everything it senses during the night on an SD card. You can pop the card out and read it any time. My correspondent TRX put me on to a free app called Sleepyhead, which takes the data from the card and throws up all kinds of graphs for Windows, Mac, and Linux. The damned thing literally graphs the shape of every single breath you take. You can see when you stop breathing, along with the following spike in pressure to open your airway again.

Ok. Now it gets a little odd, and a little disappointing. For the first six months I recorded AHIs of .5 to 7, which isn’t bad, especially compared to where I was starting from. The problem is, I still felt the profound lack of energy that’s been dogging me now for several years. I felt a little better, but I wonder if that was just the sleeping pill keeping me from reacting to dogs yipping in their sleep chasing archons in the akasha, or the drip system cranking up in the middle of the night. I stopped using the machine for a week. I didn’t feel any worse, nor better.

I’m still using it. I’ve worked out the optimal sleeping position through a year of trial-and-error: On my right side, with my head on a firm pillow, leaning back just a little to keep the mask from smooshing off my face due to pressure from the pillow. The data the S10 gives me showed me a few significant things: My AHI goes through the roof when I sleep on my back; something like 7-10. Oddly (and so far inexplicably) my AHI also goes up sharply when I sleep on my left side. Nobody can tell me why. So I sleep on my right side. I have to prop my right knee on a second pillow, but it works.

And now it gets more interesting still: I had been slowly putting on some weight for a year or two. So in February I cut my carb intake to as close to zero as I could manage, without starving myself. (Starving yourself doesn’t work. Really. What you might lose, you then gain back after the diet stops, and then some.) My weight went down from 163 to 148-150. It took a couple of months of this for me to notice, but eventually I saw it: As I lost weight, my AHI imploded. At the end of March I had my first perfect night: The S10 recorded no events at all, nothing. As spring continued, I saw my record improve even more: I started having perfect nights regularly, and then two or three (and once, four) in a row.

Carol mentioned something over breakfast one morning: I had lost weight in my face and my neck. I’ve never been seriously overweight, but I’ll be 67 in a week or so, and I’m trying to keep my A1C down to avoid Type 2. I was actually trying to eliminate visceral fat around my waist as much as possible. I didn’t even think I had fat in my face to lose.

I still haven’t regained my energy (which is one reason you don’t see as many Contra entries as you used to; I’m pouring most of what energy I have now into my fiction) and that problem remains unsolved. Maybe I’m just old. I don’t know. Coffee helps some. Beyond that, I’m out of things to try.

My only remaining theory is this: That headband sleep study was bogus. I suspect it was interpreting me jerking around in my sleep as apnea events–I’m an “active” sleeper and always have been. So although I did have sleep apnea, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the headband claimed. That said, I think the S10 has improved the quality of my sleep, which is beneficial in many ways beyond personal energy. This is why I continue to use it. My point here is that quality of sleep is not behind my energy deficit.

I’m still trying to figure that out. In the meantime, if you think you have apnea (spousal reports are good, and even a bad sleep study will give you some broad hints) I recommend two things:

1. Get yourself a recording APAP machine like the ResMed S10. Download Sleepyhead and watch your data, daily if possible. Development on the app has stopped, but it’s still available and works fine. You will learn a lot about how your sleeping position (and weight) affect your breathing.

2. Lose weight. This is good for lots of reasons (Type 2 being most important) but I’m pretty sure at this point that facial and neck fat are huge amplifiers for a tendency to apnea.

I’ve gone on long enough here for this busy morning, but if what I’ve experienced this past year will help my readers, it’s well worth it. Good luck. Cut carbs. Animal fat will not hurt you. (Certain vegetable oils will.) Sleep as much and as well as you can, even if it takes a machine to help you get there. Even (Gasp! The horror!) go to bed at 9 PM if that’s what it takes to get eight hours in before you have to go back to work or school. And pills; Belsomra is something entirely new in the human pharma cabinet. It is utterly unlike the nenzos or Z-drugs. Look into it if you have trouble sleeping.

More as I learn it. Let me know how you do, if you happen to be on this path as well.

Bouncing from Book to Book

Whoa. I’m about to do something I’ve never done before–and yes, I have drunk both whisky and black coffee–that makes me a hair uncomfortable: I’m about to recommend a book I haven’t even finished yet. And therby hangs a tale.

Back in 1991 or 1992, I noticed that a new Niven/Pournelle book had come out. In casual conversation, a friend of mine (now deceased) told me it was a waste of time and money and not to bother. The book? Fallen Angels, by Niven, Pournelle, and Mike Flynn. Even though I trusted his judgment, I was curious. I was close to a Niven completist at that point, and he remains up in my top three favorite SF authors of all time. Alas, in 1991, I was doing long, long days trying to establish a profitable publishing company, and in truth I wasn’t reading a lot of anything that didn’t directly relate to PC Techniques Magazine. So I passed on Fallen Angels. I’ve since passed on some of the later Ringworld books, and most of the Man-Kzin War saga. Not a completist anymore, I guess. The older I get, the more I ration my time and attention to things that will prove worthwhile.

Then I remembered a couple of weeks ago that Glenn Reynolds always cites Fallen Angels when he aggregates an article suggesting that the world has begun to chill. The core problem in Fallen Angels is that the Earth has begun a new ice age in the near future. An ice age!

Cool!

I’ve always been interested in ice ages. Growing up in Chicago sometimes does that to people. I still lived in Chicago during the three blistering winters of 1977, 1978, and 1979. (And when I left, I went right to Rochester, NY, heh. No relief.) When I was a kid I had a plastic model skeleton of a mastodon. And I knew what a moraine was, having camped in Kettle Moraine State Park as a boy scout.

Six bucks on Kindle? Click. Sold! (The cover image, by the way, is gorgeous.) I didn’t start reading it right away, and the hideous conversion to ebook format made me nuts enough to order a paper copy before continuing. Typos, OCR errors, ugly layout, uggh. Nonetheless, I finished it.

No, that’s not the book I’m recommending. I didn’t hate Fallen Angels, but I didn’t love it. Much of the book consists of one SF fan in-joke after another. That was the intent, but self-referential art has always turned me off. The only one missing was lime jello, and it’s entirely possible that by then I had tuned out the fangab enough that it slipped passed me. It’s readable enough to finish, and if you were a fan in the ’70s and ’80s, you’ll recognize some of the people, or maybe even yourself.

No, what happened while reading Fallen Angels is that the book references another book, this time one that I’d never heard of before: The Sixth Winter, by Douglas Orgill and John Gribbin. Orgill was new to me. Gribbin is a British astrophysicist who has written a number of very good popular science books, my favorite of which being In Search of Shroedinger’s Cat. The Sixth Winter was published in 1979, and was about the emergence of a new ice age. (Gosh! Where did they ever get that idea?!!?!?) Four bucks on Kindle? Click. Sold! And just in case, I ordered a hardcover, because used hardcovers could be had for as little as $3.66.

As I write this, the hardcover is still on order. That was certainly a good bet, because the conversion to ebook format was every bit as bad as that of Fallen Angels. I started reading the crappy ebook edition…and couldn’t put it down. Wow. In Fallen Angels, the new Ice Age was backdrop at best. In The Sixth Winter, it’s the main attraction.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the book, since it’s full of clever little twists and turns, but I will say that it has something in common with the Carl & Jerry books: It tries to explain the science that it presents, more than you’d generally get away with in a typical SF adventure novel. I’ll present a hunch: Orgill wrote the fiction, and Gribbon wrote the science. I found it remarkable how such a book grabbed my attention. With the caution (again) that I have a keen interest in ice ages, I recommend it. It is not great fiction. But it is extremely vivid in its descriptions, and there are (fictional) ideas and (granted, dated) science that I’m much enjoying. So there! I did it! I recommended a book that I’m not quite halfway through. Make of it what you will. Sneaky tip: Buy a paper copy. You’ll grind your teeth less over OCR errors, which are legion. “Seat” becomes “scat.” Ouch.

Now hold on. The story isn’t over yet. Partway into The Sixth Winter, the book cites yet another book: Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate Since the Year 1000, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. (1971.) This is a nonfiction book. There is no ebook edition. (I was slightly relieved to learn that.) Paperbacks from $8.93. Why not? Click. Sold! I don’t have it yet, but it includes some contemporary accounts of the Little Ice Age, which I consider to be part of the Ice Age concept and am much looking forward to reading.

Why this sudden interest in ice ages? It’s not sudden; it’s always been there. But I’ll tip my hand just a little bit: I’m heading into the downwind leg of my current work-in-progress, Dreamhealer. Next up (this time fersure, Amy!) is The Molten Flesh. I’ve struggled with the sequel to The Cunning Blood for a long time. I’ve got a nanotech intelligence, an interesting heavy, and plenty of ideas to toss in the pot. The backdrop is still what it was in The Cunning Blood: Canada rules a half-depopulated Earth with an iron hand. The US is still a province under direct Canadian control. The question that arises is this: After being in complete control of the planet for well over a hundred years, what could possibly get Canada’s attention?

Heh. Captain Obvious signing off for now…

The Boggling Superpower of Bubble Wrap

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We’re long past the End of Owgust. The End of September is upon us, and my pool is still at 93° F. Why? It has nothing to do with global warming, and everything to do with a 20′ by 40′ sheet of blue bubble wrap. Back toward the end of spring, Carol and I bought a swimming pool cover. It came in a box, and it was just what I described: a 20′ X 40′ sheet of bubble wrap. I had to modify the corners a little to make it fit my idiosyncratically shaped in-ground pool, but that took less than an hour with a pair of ordinary scissors.

Now, in a riproaring Phoenix summer, you don’t need no steenking pool cover to keep your pool upwards of 90°. Just sitting there in the sun all day, my 44,000 gallon diving pool hit 95 degrees in early July all by its lonesome. But as we got into September and the days got shorter, the water temp soon fell to 85°. This feels great when the air temp is 110, but the air temp fell with the length of the day, and especially in our late-evening dips before bed, the air temp was in the high 80s and the water actually felt better warm. So two weeks ago, with the water temp at 85°, we dragged out the pool cover and wrestled it into place on the water.

Then, day by day, we boggled as the water temperature rose. By this afternoon, with a daily high a mere 100° (lukewarm by Phoenix standards) the water was at 93°. Carol’s sister Kathy is coming down for a visit in ten days, and she’s expecting warm days and warm pool water. The days will be in the 90s, which, if your’re accustomed to Chicago weather, is plenty warm. The challenge is to keep the water above 90° into the middle of October. I was a little worried about that.

Not anymore.

It’s been an interesting science experiment. At the end of a sunny day, the water immediately under the pool cover comes very close to 100°. That’s just for the top 2″ or so. When the pool pump kicks in at 8PM, it mixes that hot top layer with the cooler water beneath it. Come morning, the water is all mixed, and has gained half a degree or more throughout. The pool cover prevents most of the radiation by which pools lose their warmth at the end of summer. With the Sun to add new heat every day, and the cover to prevent it from radiating into the night sky, the pool accumulates heat. I think that 93° is the equilibrium temperature when the daily highs hover around 100°. We’re heading into a cooler week, so I don’t know precisley how that’s going to go, but as long as I can maintain 90° I’ll be more than happy.

The cover cost about $200. This may seem high for a sheet of bubble wrap, but in truth, it’s not the same kind of bubble wrap you get at the UPS Store to stuff in around the knicknacks you’re shipping to your godmother. The plastic is heavier and more rugged, and with some luck and careful handling could last 3-4 years.

Kathy’s visit will be a good test, but the primary experiment is to find out how long the cover can extend pool season, which by our definition is when the pool is at 82°or higher. We’re expecting to make it to Halloween, and–given reasonably warm weather and all sunny days–hoping to make it to Thanksgiving. There will be another experiment next March or April, to see when the cover brings the pool temp up to 82° for the first time in the season.

Sometime this winter, we’re going to have the pool “depth-modified,” which means that they’re going to jackhammer out the plaster, fill in the 9′ deep end, and replaster it to become a “play pool,” which will be 5′ in the center, and 3-4′ deep at both ends. I was never much of a diver, and I think we may score a discount on our homowner’s policy for getting rid of that 9′ depth. With only 30,000 gallons or so in the modified pool, who knows? We could be in the water 9 months out of the year. Maybe more.

Solar power rocks. It isn’t all photovoltaics.

This Business of Bourbon Barrel Aged Wines

I’m a contrarian. I defy convention. I question authority. I make fun of pretentiousness. I go my own way. This is especially true in my choice of wines, as I’ve written about here in the past. I’m notorious for praising wines that are (gasp!) not completely dry. I don’t actually drink sweet wine much anymore, since I’ve more or less sworn off sugar, but my reasons there have nothing to do with wine snobbery. I actually like sweet wine. But as I cruise through late middle age, I’m keeping an eye on my A1C.

My most recent discovery began as a fad but went mainstream: soft red blends. Their “softness” is really a consequence of leaving a little more residual sugar in the wine, generally bringing it up to 1% or a little higher, rather than asymptotically close to zero. This article is a little condescending in spots, but nails the reason soft red blends are popular: “…red blends tend to have a softer tannin profile than other popular red varietal categories, such as Cabernet Sauvignon.” Bingo. Not everybody likes tannins in wine, especially supertasters like me, for whom bitter flavors overwhelm any other flavors in food or drink. Most of what I drink are now Zinfandels and soft red blends, particularly Menage a Trois’ Silk and HiJinx Cellars’ HiJinx red blend, which I should have bought a case of while it was still available here. I don’t think anything has done more damage to wine snobbery than soft red blends in the forty-odd years since white zin came on the scene.

So. There’s a new fad in town: Red wines aged in used bourbon barrels. I’m not much for bourbon. It tastes bitter to me, like most whiskeys. So I didn’t try it when Apothic made a splash with their Inferno blend in 2016. Instead, I stumbled across 1000 Stories Zinfandel earlier this summer. It’s aged in bourbon barrels for sixty days. It’s a $19 wine you can often find for $16 or $17. The wine is softer than a lot of zins, though I doubt its residual sugar tops 0.8%. Even at $16 it’s not what I call a “daily driver” wine, but if I’ve sprung for good tenderloins to toss on the grill, I’m willing to pop for a wine that does them justice.

Even if I didn’t know ahead of the game that this was a bourbon-aged zin, I would know that there was something different about it. There’s a taste or a sensation somewhere between conventional wine spice and a sort of burn that I associate with whiskey. The burn is subtle, and doesn’t overwhelm the wine. It just barely gets your attention, and I’m good with that.

Having declared their Zinfandel good, I tried 1000 Stories Gold Rush Red, a blend (not billed as soft) that is also aged for sixty days in bourbon barrels. It’s a decent red, also $19. However, the burn is not as pronounced, and although it’s a perfectly good blend, I’m not sure I’d pay $19 for it. $14 or $15, sure.

Next up beside the Duntemann grill was Exitus Red, again bourbon-barrel aged. It’s a $20 California blend of Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The alcohol level is high (15.9%) which competes with the characteristic fruit-forward Zinfandel flavor. However, it’s a very good blend, and if the bourbon burn isn’t strong in this one, it’s mostly because the alcohol is through the roof. I do rate it a little higher than Gold Rush Red on overall impression. However, if you want a solid red blend, you don’t have to pay $20 for it.

Having found three reasonable bourbon-aged reds, I hunted around and finally located a bottle of Apothic Inferno, which was a limited-edition wine and has evidently gotten scarce since 2016. Apothic is famous for soft red blends like Apothic Red and Apothic Crush, so I had high hopes for it. And in truth, it was a pretty fair wine, quite drinkable, and only $12. But I was left with the suspicion that Apothic had poured the wine into the bourbon barrels before completely emptying out the bourbon. Really; it tastes like a mix of bourbon and red wine. The burn is there, but the bourbon taste overwhelms even the burn, and it’s the dominant nose in the glass and flavor on the tongue. Whether this is a bug or a feature is a matter of taste, and I readily admit that I’ve never tasted anything even remotely like it. I find the bitter edge a little off-putting, but you may enjoy that sort of thing. Like Exitus, it’s a 15.9% wine, so go easy with it. As for pairings, I’m not sure. The whiskey flavor clashed a little with good steaks, but might be just fine with burgers or brats.

There are more. Mondavi has a bourbon-aged cab, which I won’t try because I don’t drink cabs. Jacob’s Creek has a Shiraz aged in Scotch whiskey barrels, and while I don’t know that Scotch whiskey tastes different enough from bourbon to make a difference, I like Shiraz enough to try it. Others will likely emerge, and if I turn up a good one, I’ll mention it here on Contra. Grilling season is kicking into high gear in Arizona now that our long, long summer is ramping down. So there will be plenty of opportunities to try new things on both the food and the wine side of the counter. Stay tuned.

The End of Owgust

My father had a saying. (Actually, he had a lot of sayings, most of which you’ve long since heard.) This one I’m pretty sure he got from his mother, my grandmother, whom I heard use it a number of times: “The end of Owgust.” (If it came from Sade Prendergast Duntemann, it could well be an Irish thing; I don’t know.) It just means we’re coming to the end of something generally good, like summer vacation, which in truth used to last until the end of Owgust, but now often ends barely after Owgust even begins.

Here in Arizona, the end of Owgust is seen by many as a feature rather than a bug, since by a lot of Arizona people’s reckonings, Owgust begins in May and lasts until mid-September. By Labor day, most people would like to see nightly lows in the 70s again, so we can open our windows at night.

Carol and I tend to get a little tired of our four-month long Owgust as the end approaches, and we were planning to drive up to Colorado to spend some time with friends and see what air in the 60 degree range feels like again.

Not this year.

Our poor QBit was diagnosed with lymphoma a couple of months ago, and we can see his steady decline. We don’t know how long we’ll have him, but it’s unlikely to be more than another month or two. We didn’t want to subject him to an 850-mile road trip, so we stayed home and spent more time in the pool. Lymphoma was what took out our very first bichon, the famous Mr. Byte, in 1995, and is evidently the commonest cancer in dogs. We gave Mr. Byte doggie chemo, but it only bought us a few additional months with him, and made him pretty sick at times. We’re not going to do that again.

So if I’ve been a little short on manic enthusiasm lately, that’s most of the problem.

Other things are going pretty well. Little by little I’ve been getting used to the nasal pillows mask for my APAP machine, which is reporting AHI values generally less than 1, and here and there actually 0. I’m using the great free program Sleepyhead, which displays graphs of your AHI, whatever events it had to handle, mask pressure and leaks, and much more. If you use a recording C/A/BiPAP machine with a compatible SD card format, check it out. It’s told me a number of interesting things, like the fact that events cluster at the end of the night for some reason, and that I record more events when I sleep on my left side than on my right. Highly recommended.

I had some time to play around with my dirt-cheap HP dc7900 Ultra-Slim PC, and liked it so much I ordered another one. The first one was cheap at $37 (I had to provide a hard drive and Win7) but when I went out and looked again on eBay, I found a complete system, including a 64-bit dc7900 with a hard drive and Windows 7, plus power supply, keyboard, mouse, monitor stand, and a 19″ HP flat-panel monitor. The price? $65. For the woiks. Ok, I had to pay another $25 shipping, but that means I got a complete system dropped on my porch for $90. (Stock photo above, but that’s exactly how it looks, granted that the cables aren’t shown.)

dc7900 speaker 300 wide.jpgThe HP monitor stand is nice, certainly nicer than Dell’s. The dc7900 did not come with an internal speaker, but given the size of the speaker (my first machine has one) I doubt it’s good for much more than beeps. And if I ever want one, I can get a NOS unit on eBay for $5. (The Dell speakers for their USFF lines had built-in audio amps and much better fidelity.)

The system will replace an older Dell machine that Carol has been using for some time, with a slower processor and a maddeningly intermittent front panel that prevents her from plugging thumb drives into the front of the box. The machines are roughly the same size, but the Dell electronics have been twitchy, and the combo monitor stand horrendous. The old machine has external speakers, so the HP’s near-microscopic squeakplate won’t be an issue. The HP is newer, and the Dell cost me three times as much when I bought it five years ago.

Overall, a huge win!

Finally, seeing listings on eBay for sales lots of literally hundreds of used “cube machines” like the dc7900, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s the end of Owgust for the ordinary, non-gamer desktop PC industry. You don’t need a lot of crunch power for word processing, spreadsheets, local databases, or (most of) the Web. Even with only 4GB installed, I streamed a whole movie on the first dc7900 without a glitch. So these machines are perfectly usable for ordinary people doing ordinary computer-y things. You can spend $500+ for a desktop box at Best Buy…or you can get the whole damned system from eBay for $90, delivered. They’re not new. But they’re clean, small, and rugged. Parts are available on eBay, from the crappy little microspeaker up to whole motherboards–though at these prices, I consider the machines disposable and won’t be replacing any misbehaving mobos.

A lot of desktops are being replaced by laptops, which is really where the action is these days, as well as the high prices manufacturers prefer to get. If you’re going to stick with a boring desktop PC, you might as well get one used for 75% (or more) off retail. I’ve got a big hulking custom Core I5-2400 quad, which I’ve used since 2012, and it’s still more than fast enough for my needs. Furthermore, it’s in a Thermaltake V9 Blacx case with SATA sockets on the top panel for backup drives. Damned useful. I could get a faster mobo for it, but…why?

This all reminds me of a Contra entry I posted back in 2009, about how with cars (and silverware) lasting a lot longer than in years past, we need to manufacture fewer cars and less silverware to avoid saturating the market. The same goes for PCs. As each wave of compact cubicle machines comes off depreciation and heads for eBay, the price of a perfectly usable desktop machine goes down. Even if the $65 deal I got last week was unusual, it won’t be for long. Keep your eyes open.

Cheap Machines: The HP/Compaq dc7900

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Back in the early oughts, I saw my first ultra-small form factor (USFF) PCs at our doctor’s office. The machines were Dell Optiplex SX270s, and they were little marvels: Quiet, fast, easy to field-strip and very reliable. (There was a certain widespread problem with bad electrolytic capacitors in that era, and I ran into a couple of SX270s and Samsung monitors containing said bad caps.) They were P4s running XP, and Carol used one successfully as her main machine for a number of years. We donated several to our church’s office, which was pretty full and rather tight, space-wise. Nobody had any trouble with them. Even in 2007, they could be had for $200 or less, depending on what they had in them in terms of RAM and HD.

The SX270s were 2001-era machines, and I’ve long since gotten rid of them. I had a couple of slightly later models, including the SX280 and GX620. I took the 620 to the Taos Toolbox SF workshop in the summer of 2011, along with my steampunk computer table and my Aethernet Concentrator, as Jim Strickland dubbed it. It mounted behind the monitor, and while that made it a little tricky to plug in thumb drives, it made very good use of what small space the table offered.

The steampunk computer table is still in my office, and if I ever go to another live-in workshop again, I’ll take it with me. The GX620 ran Win7 badly, and has been gone for several years now. I need a newer machine to go on the table. Notice I didn’t say a “new” machine. In fact, I was a little curious as to how cheap a machine I could get on eBay that would do the job (office apps) and mount to the dual arm monitor stand that I have clamped to the table. That meant a machine with VESA holes, ideally. Such exist; I had seen them years ago.

It didn’t take long to find such a machine: The HP/Compaq dc7900 USFF. At 10″ X 10″ X 2.75″ it’s a little smaller than the SX270. And the price, hokey smoke! I bought one for $37. Now, that didn’t include a hard drive, but I have a box full of empty SATA hard drives. It came with a DVD-RW drive (and LightScribe, at that, heh) 4GB RAM, and an outboard 135W power supply. The CPU is a 2.5 GHz dual-core Pentium E5200.

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I installed Win7 on it, and boom! It just worked. It identified the Dell E228WFP monitor I had attached to the monitor stand and adjusted its resolution to match. I installed enough software to test it but no more than that; like I said, I don’t need it right now and it was mostly a research project and a bit of a stunt, to see how much machine I could buy online for how little money.

Below is a side view of the setup. I used four M4-10 screws to mount it to the monitor stand (VESA is a metric standard) and twisted the arm around until the dc7900 was level with the top edge of the monitor.

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Internally, the machine is uncrowded, with two small and almost silent fans to pull air past the CPU heatsink and out of the machine generally. It has eight USB ports, plus both PS/2 keyboard and mouse DIN connectors.

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The hard drive is mounted underneath the optical drive, but both come out very quickly without any screwdriver involvement. The hard drive is screwed into a little spring-loaded caddy that snaps into place and mates the SATA connectors firmly, with a little constant spring pressure to keep the drive from walking out of electrical connection.

I’ve only been messing with it for a few days, but so far it’s been trouble-free and able to do anything I could throw at it. No, it’s not as fast as my quadcore. I won’t be doing any gaming or video editing on it. Word processing and email don’t take a lot of cycles. Web browsers are wildcards in that regard, but so far it’s been able to render YouTube videos without any stutter or artifacts.

If you need a physically small machine for ordinary office work, I recommend it. And hey, for $37 plus a junkbox SATA HDD and an OEM copy of Win7, I’d say it’s hard to beat.