Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

April, 2008:

Between Fire and Ice

Sure, maybe the guy's a nut, but I'm a contrarian and I love heresies. There certainly seem to be fewer sunspots this cycle than we're used to, and cooling climate trends are definitely correlated with things like the Dalton Minimum and the Maunder Minimum. I've sometimes wondered if the Little Ice Age was “little” because we aborted it by throwing CO2 into the atmosphere in serious quantities. Absent that, we might all be cavemen in an ice wilderness by now.

Ahh. Maybe the Earth really has a little old lady named Gaia somewhere pulling strings. Maybe prescient whales (or sentient mushroom rings in the English forests) saw it coming and carefully guided the evolution of humanity so that it would control fire. Fire is addictive. Do enough of it, and you can keep the atmosphere warm through the greenhouse effect. Maybe the Earth got tired of being cold, and it evolved us because it didn't have any leg warmers.

Climate is an interesting business. The Earth seems to teeter between fire and ice, but from what we know of our geophysical history it prefers ice. If the sunspot dearth is a leading indicator of reduced solar activity, we may have a few years to do…what? Buy Hummers? Whoops. We already tried that.

Ok, ok, correlation is not causation. I'll shut up. Still… At least in Colorado Springs, this was The Winter That Wouldn't End. And it snowed in Chicago last night. If this keeps up I'm moving back to Arizona, thank you very much. I hear that when the ice sheets get as far south as Nebraska, the mammoth hunting is better there.

Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus

sent me a pointer to an article by Clay Shirky about the “cognitive surplus”—excess brainpower not needed for making a living. Thought-provoking in the extreme; read it if you haven't already. Shirky's thesis is that free time created by postwar productivity gains have been sopped up by watching TV, and if we watched only a little less TV and deployed that wasted brain-time in collaborative projects, wow! The things we could do! I'm short on time today, so I'll post a few quick observations on the article and the idea here, in the hope for more general conversation:

  • The consequences of the invention of gin are very well covered by Colin Wilson in his book A Criminal History of Mankind. The problem was not solved for 200 years—the urban poor drinking themselves to death was the primary reason for Prohibition—and it's still not entirely clear to me how it was solved. My guess: Universal education and technology (think TV) allowed the poor to entertain themselves in less destructive ways.
  • Do we really watch two billion hours of TV every year, or are TVs simply on for two billion hours? In many households, TVs provide a sort of background noise to prevent too much disturbing silence, but how much attention is paid to the box is a lot more difficult to measure, and I suspect Big Media would prefer that no one try.
  • TV is often watched for the many but very small time slices that it takes to catch the news or weather. Carol and I watch very little TV but The Weather Channel, and we watch it in small chunks of a few minutes a few times a day. It adds up, but converting those dispersed minutes into productive brain-time may not be possible. The problem here is not a shortage of time but a shortage of focus, which is a separate and worthy discussion.
  • Almost incredibly, Shirky does not say much about the immense cognitive energy already spent on collaborative noncommercial cognitive projects. Think Linux and all open-source software, tens of thousands of free ebooks scanned and formatted from out-of-copyright sources (and a few in-copyright sources, like some of mine, sigh) not to mention the work of all those Pixel-Stained Technopeasants who had their day (April 23) last week. This is not new news, though it's good for it to be pointed out now and then.
  • Nor is much said about the general rise in volunteering in more traditional social service pursuits, which by and large are not cognitive in nature. As problematic as I consider some of his conclusions, much good data on volunteering is cited in Arthur Brooks' Who Really Cares? Not all time and energy released from TV watching now goes into, or would go into, cognitive pursuits.
  • And the ugly truth that no one seems willing to recognize: A huge percentage of people simply don't have the ability to contribute meaningfully to cognitive projects. This may be by genetics or by adverse circumstances, but it's true nonetheless. I keep thinking that a lot of them, if there were no TV, would go back to gin or to worse things that didn't exist when gin was invented in 1740.

My early conclusion: There's less cognitive surplus than the article suggests, and less upside to be gained by turning away from TV. People inclined to be creative already cluster toward the bottom of the TV time curve, and a lot of the people I consider brilliant don't watch TV at all. There is almost certainly an irreducable minimum number of people who need TV as an anaesthetic, and this number may be higher than we care to admit. Loneliness, clinical depression, and other psychiatric problems dissipate and render useless an immense amount of human energy, and we don't seem any closer to solving those problems than we were in 1740. Those problems may not in fact be solvable, though saying so won't make me any friends.

Still, anything that nudges people away from the box toward creative or collaborative pursuits of any nature is a good thing. My problem at this point in my life is not TV but sleep, since I need ten hours in bed to yield eight hours of useful sleep cycles. The time I used to spend commuting I now spend wondering why I'm not asleep, and if I could lick that problem I would get a great deal more done.

Odd Lots

  • We had rockfish for dinner the other night, and since I didn't know exactly what I was eating, I researched it (it's nothing remarkable; a sort of domesticated sea bass) but in the process I happened upon a brilliant little animated hard SF short about an unflappable interstellar sportsman of the future who goes out with his faithful pet monkeydog and trolls for The Big Catch: “Rockfish.”
  • While we're doing animated videos, don't miss the charmingly inane steampunk short “A Gentleman's Duel” from the same studio.
  • From Frank Glover comes a pointer to an interesting article about whether there are “habitable zones” in our galaxy. We're caught between our schedule, our metals concentration, and our supernovas, and ferdang, somehow we got placed “just right.” I'm always a little suspicious of charts that somehow get us dead-center. Supernovas may trigger lots of interesting things, from radiation-proofed cellular reproduction systems to “novel” stars and planets. I'm far from sure that zones closer to the Core are so deadly as to preclude the evolution of any kind of life—just Life As We Know It.
  • Are you nervous about European-style national health care? You should be.
  • Also from the NYT: The housing crash will likely cut the US birth rate, which roughly tracks housing availability and may be the reason that the birth rate is so low in Europe, with its staggeringly high housing costs.
  • A compendium of really weird products, including wedgie-proof underwear and a Hilary Clinton toilet bowl brush. What boggles the mind is that this is not a collection of hoaxes: All of these items are real.
  • Here's an eye-crossing but interesting paper that explains a lot of why I dislike competitive sports.
  • From David Stafford comes news of one of the most bizarre motorcycles ever imagined. It's electric. It works a little like the Segway. It gets points for design, fersure, but…you ride. I'll watch.

Nothing is Sewn Up Yet

By the grace of the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, tonight we may know who will face off against John McCain this fall. Many were saying that by tonight we may know who our next President will be, but even though Big Media long ago declared Obama the King of the Universe, our Great Pretender has been caught saying the same stupid condescending things about rural whites that the educated white elite used to say about urban blacks. Hilary's gotten herself caught in a few gaffes herself, but she's not the naïf that Obama is and has kept herself closer to the center. It's still a tossup between them. Tonight may nail it, but it may not.

I don't do politics here very often, so I'll offer a few notes on the race so far and be done for another month or two:

  • There are clearly no such things as “private remarks” or “this is off the record” anymore. We've taught our young people for years that politics has no rules, that outright hatred of whole groups for political reasons is completely acceptable under the banner of the First Amendment and “political speech,” and that it doesn't matter how you do it as long as you win. Those striving for elected office these days have to be very careful what they say and where they say it, because the blogosphere is full of people who will gleefully publish it and by doing so make it eternal. The Internet never forgets. Better to just shut up and quietly stand on your record, if you have one.
  • Something I've noticed in talking with political independents for many years is that independents don't believe campaign promises. They understand completely that lying is legal, and that the only way to judge a candidate is to look at his or her record in detail (including—or especially—where their money is coming from) and then extrapolate linearly into the future. When you give stirring campaign speeches full of promises, you are reassuring your base, not persuading the center to move in your direction. Independents call BS on anything candidates say since they first declared themselves.
  • There is a difference between what people say to friends (and to pollsters) and what they do in the privacy of the voting booth. It's something like caucusing in the months leading up to the election: People will say the things that they think they are expected to say (like “I'm voting for Obama!”) to avoid unpleasantness and conflict within their inner circles. This is a survival tactic if you live among political tribalists from either side of the spectrum. On election day, the magic of the secret ballot makes it possible for “survival centrists” to vote their true hearts, knowing that no one will catch them out in any lies made earlier to keep their scalps intact.
  • The American electorate is still very closely divided, and it doesn't take a lot of votes to tip an election. Nobody has anything sewn up.

Some final speculation pertinent to this last point: Many across the political spectrum have already written off John McCain, but that's a mistake. McCain is not seen as a “real” Republican in some quarters on the right, but Republicans are better nose-holders than Democrats, and come November McCain will get their votes irrespective of the Democratic nominee. McCain has cleverly kept his VP spot open (and generally kept a low profile) and probably will until he is absolutely sure what he's up against. Having played the race and gender cards intensely for a couple of years now, the Democrats have legitimized this kind of tokenism in the public eye. McCain could easily win against Obama by partnering with either a black or a Hispanic. He could win against Hilary by partnering with a woman of any color. In either case, it doesn't matter who. It's sad that it's come to this, but that's how American politics is now played, and both political parties had better be ready to reap the whirlwind in unexpected ways.

We Caught Bigfoot!

Yes, Carol and I caught a Bigfoot a couple of weeks ago. Big, yes: 25 feet long, and just under 12 feet high. Feet, no: Our bigfoot has wheels. What we caught was a never-used 2006 Bigfoot Model 30MH24DB RV, and the capture was a bit of an accident. The local Bigfoot dealer here in Colorado Springs went bankrupt, and we heard that their inventory was being liquidated. So although it wasn't precisely what we were looking for, the price asked was so stunningly good that we decided to give it a shot.

Carol and I have rented RVs before, and I've described our adventures in this space. We haven't been able to travel as much as we would like, especially here in the West. Our experience staying in hotels in out-of-the-way locations has been very mixed (you can't always find a Hyatt when you want one) and this is one solution.

We bought it about a month ago, but that was serendipity, and we didn't have a chance to actually take it out on the road until this weekend, when we went out with our church's RV group. The destination was Mountaindale Campground, which is only 16 miles from our front door, south down Highway 115 toward Cañon City. We think traveling with more experienced RVers is a good idea until we get our RV chops, and that has worked out very well, especially considering that two of the people in our group are RV repair technicians, one of whom actually worked for some time at the Bigfoot dealership that went under.

The Bigfoot is a little taller than a lot of Class C RVs (Class Cs are the ones with van-ish cabs and a bulge over the cab) and what that buys is storage space. Beneath the floor are several compartments that can hold a lot of stuff, one of them big enough to lug a considerable telescope. Being from Canada, the unit is much more heavily insulated than RVs built here, not that I intend to do a lot of cold-weather camping. Insulation works both ways, and we have hopes that it will take less A/C to keep it cool in summer.

The weather for our first outing was stunningly good. Most of what I did was learn how to operate and maintain the unit, which has a manual so thin and poorly done that it may well be worse than blissful ignorance. (I had to slap myself to keep from outlining Bigfoot RVs for Beginners in my head as I was struggling to make sense of the electrical system.) Carol and I did take QBit and Aero for a hike up to the top of a nearby hill, but most of the time we spent taking it easy in the company of friends, and listening attentively to RV war stories. I may well write my own damned manual just to keep all the heuristics straight, and if it gets good enough to go up on Lulu, so much the better. In the meantime, we have a vehicle in which to see some of Colorado, and attend local dog shows where Carol will be showing Aero. (There is a lot of RV culture in the dog show world—and in fact at the recent Tarry All show north of Denver we ran into a couple who travel in a Bigfoot unit identical to ours while showing Gordon Setters.)

I'm not sure I could live in it for weeks and weeks, but it will get us around to the mountains I've never seen and don't want to miss in this life. As for computing in an RV, more on that as time allows. I learned a lot this weekend, and am learning even more reading the RV forums online. One addditional thing I learned is this: Don't use Vista. Really don't use Vista. Every time I have to rescue somebody from its clutches—as I did this weekend—I hate it more. Ubuntu 8.04 comes out in three days, and there's a partition waiting for it, on an SX270 machine that I may “build in” to the Bigfoot. Again, more on that has it happens.

Odd Lots

  • Ok. It's April 16, and outside it's 30° and blizzarding. There's about two inches on the ground already and we may get another 4″ – 6″ tonight. Would you fools please stop calling it “global warming” and start calling it “climate change” before the whole world decides we're idiots?
  • In one respect the snow is welcome: There were two very bad wildfires here in the last couple of days, one of them only about fifteen miles due south of me, and the smoke was bad enough to make my allergies go ballistic this morning.
  • Interestingly, the fire broke out about a quarter of a mile from where we intend to go RV camping the day after tomorrow. (As best we know, the campground has not seen any fire or other damage on their land.) Snow seems to follow us on camping trips. (That little adventure was on the last day of summer, people!) We're hoping this time will be different.
  • Democrats in Congress are spearheading an effort to compel states to collect state taxes on out-of-state online vendors. Far from targeting corporate fat cats, the effort will cost ordinary people, including some fairly poor ones, a great deal of money. Tell me, now: How is this supposed to help you win elections?
  • I just bought an off-lease, nearly flawless Dell Optiplex SX270 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 with a 60 GB hard drive and a DVD-ROM…for $199. Computers, like books, have gotten so cheap that they're basically disposable. If this machine dies any time soon, I'll just buy another, wincing a little to imagine that my 1978 Intersystems DPS-1 S-100 bus machine with a 1 MHz 8080 CPU cost me $3600 1978 dollars. (It was the first and still the coolest-looking computer I have ever owned that I did not build myself.)
  • The story I could not identify in my April 10, 2008 Odd Lots (about a guy who extracted gold from seawater) was “The Man Who Ploughed the Sea” by Arthur C. Clarke, and it was a Harry Purvis story from Tales from the White Hart.
  • From Bruce Schneier's CryptoGram comes a pointer to a wonderful little piece on what sorts of books bookstore shoplifters lift, and what sort of man a bookstore shoplifter is. (You do subscribe to CryptoGram, don't you?)
  • The lyrics to one of the funniest pop songs ever to hit the Billboard Top 20 are (legally) online, at the author's Web site: Dean Friedman's 1976 “Ariel.” It's one of the few songs I would ever consent to perform in public, though that would require that I learn to play some kind of an instrument. Maybe this.
  • Bob Thompson sent me a link to one of his posts relating (as my entry for yesterday did) to catalogs of the 1960s, in this case the Sears Catalog. His comments pertaining to chemistry sets are bang-on, though I would add that a significant amount of the value of chemistry sets lay in allowing kids to imagine themselves as scientists—chemistry has more identifiably iconic paraphernalia than almost any other scientific discipline—and what kids can't imagine themselves as, they generally won't become.

My Favorite (Or Maybe Second Favorite) Year

Harry Helms recently sent me something he thought I might enjoy: A copy of the 1964 Allied Radio catalog. When I opened the package and sat down with it, I realized that 1964 might well be my favorite year, if second to any then second only to the magical summer of 1969, when I met Carol. (1969 was painful at times for reasons that had nothing to do with Carol, first of which being that in 1964 my father was not dying of cancer.) I turned 12 in the summer of 1964, and had not yet begun to feel the hormone storm that would close in by the summer of '65 and make me crazy for years to come. Granted, many of the girls returned to IC School that September with a couple of things they didn't have the previous June, but apart from a passing fascination with a little girl named Laura that fall (which she never found out about—whew!) the whole girl thing blew past me. Halloween was on a Saturday that year—what luck!—and it was warm. Ten full hours to scavenge sugar from the neighbors, and we didn't need three sweaters under our costumes!

But for me in 1964, electronics was the thing. I had discovered electronics when I was 10, began seriously reading library books about it and building things when I was 11, and had begun to achieve some modest success by the time I turned 12. Simple radios were problematic, because my antenna looked right down the throat of hillbilly rock station WJJD's 50,000 watt directive array a mile or so northwest of me in Park Ridge, so I built other things: A two-transistor organ (with keys made of strips of tin can metal) a cigar-box intercom (put to good use by the Fox Patrol at Camp Owassipe that summer) and a capacity-operated proximity relay, which (being “spooky action at a distance”) was about as close to magic as it came.

That summer my father taught me how to take the CTA bus down to Six Corners (over my mother's strident objection) and always gave me a couple of dollars to spend at Olson Electronics on Milwaukee Avenue, back at a time when a couple of dollars would buy a pocketful of resistors, capacitors, and transistors. Allied was also in town (at 100 N. Western Avenue) but that was a lot farther away, and not in an especially good neighborhood. I knew Allied from its catalog and its catalog alone.

But what a catalog! Anything a boy teetering on the edge of the Age of Lust might want was right there: Ham radio, CB, shortwave, hi-fi stereo, tape decks, portable radios, test equipment, speakers, tools, parts cabinets, resistors, capacitors, transformers, Miniboxes, plugs and sockets and chassis punches and antenna insulators, everything. The first 77 pages of the catalog was the full list of Knight Kits, which were cheaper than finished gear because you put them together yourself. I later went on to build a few and own many more Knight items, including the wonderful T-60 CW/AM transmitter, the nice LC-1 CPO, the so-so R-55A receiver, and the totally wretched T150A VFO transmitter, which wandered across more territory and with more brute persistence than an alley cat. Interestingly, the Knight Kit I wanted the most in 1964 I never got: The Span Master shortwave radio (at left) which I thought then (and may still) to be the coolest-looking radio in history.

The back of the catalog was fascinating, as it listed in minuscule type endless small electronic parts and hardware, some of which I ordered through the mail, careful to send enough money to cover the goods and postage, and often (to be sure I hadn't messed up the shipping calculations) a little more—which Allied always honestly refunded, in the form of 4c and 7c credit slips to be applied to my next order. That part of the catalog is still useful as a reference: If you run across a Knight 61G466 power transformer at a hamfest, the catalog will tell you what the output voltages of its various windings are.

Some of the stuff I didn't want, and often had no clear concept of why it was useful: What good, after all, was a clock radio? I have an inner alarm clock that I can “set” to any arbitrary time and have never had any trouble bouncing out of bed at 6 ayem, often singing. (Carol is a very patient woman.) “You can wake up to music!” said the ad. Indeed. And you could plug your coffee pot into the back of the radio, which I just couldn't figure, as we were a gas household and an electric coffee pot was heresy, pure and simple. Tachometers and electronic ignition systems—no visceral response; when you're 12 and “small for your age” driving is almost unimaginable. The Blonder-Tongue (now there's a name for you!) TV mast signal amplifiers puzzled me; in Chicago you could practically get Channel 9 on your fillings. (You would, if WJJD hadn't already saturated them.)

1964 was the last great year of tube electronics, and the transmitters, receivers, and test gear units were not only big enough to see, they were big enough to cause serious injury if dropped on body parts. (I dropped a Central Electronics 100V transmitter on my thumb in 1998, and my thumbnail has never been the same since. And hey, in 1998 I was 46 and careful.) The prices on much of it were daunting: The Hallicrafters SR-150 SSB transmitter was $689—what the Inflation Calculator tells me would cost over $4600 today. The best a 12-year-old boy could do was look at the pictures and think, Hey, someday I may have this thing! The Allied catalog was the drool book of all drool books.

Yes, it was a great year. When my family went out to California on the Union Pacific that summer, my Allied catalog went with me (along with several issues of Popular Electronics and a couple of Alfred Morgan's books) and I got past the endless wheat fields of eastern Wyoming doodling chassis layouts on a pad of paper. That fall I built a regenerative receiver from a Popular Electronics article, with $15 worth of parts carefully ordered (and paid for by my saintly father) from the 1965 Allied catalog, which arrived without being summoned in October. I could never make it work well (though it picked up WJJD without any trouble) and there were times when I was tempted to give up electronics and just stare at Laura in English class like all the other guys did. But no: Girls were mysterious, and I would be years'n'years figuring them out. (I may still have a few years to go on that score.) But electronics? You flip a switch, and things happen. That was my kind of magic, and the Allied catalog was where it all came from, whether in grand dreams or grubby reality. I had both, and Halloween was on a Saturday! Life was good.

Odd Lots

  • Those who marveled at the quirky motion of the Big Dog quadripedal robot should not miss the (inevitable) video parody.
  • And while we're watching videos, make sure you watch this one, starring a Pope Benedict XVI bobblehead identical to the one on my bookshelf. While this is what I call “gentle humor” and I suspect that Good Pope Bennie (with whom I disagree but whom I do not despise) would have laughed had he seen it, the usual grump-ass moroons who object to things like this prevailed to have the ad pulled. Fu on 'em.
  • Which of course reminded me of this famous Far Side cartoon, which incensed Jane Goodall's staffers but made the great lady herself laugh. My father told me early on: Life demands a sense of humor. Only cowards cannot laugh at themselves, and only hopeless slave-collar tribalists cannot abide humor about their own leaders.
  • George Hodous sent me a link to an artist who uses intersecting lasers to etch a crystal cube containing a 3-D starmap of our stellar neighborhood out to five parsecs. Nice work, and if you ever forget, he's marked the direction to the galactic core.
  • Maybe this is why I started to get muscular in middle age. Thanks to Frank Glover for the pointer.
  • Takahiro Kato of Japan sent me a link to his page on 12V tube work, including a 30mw transmitter he designed. It's in Japanese, and (alas) the machine translation link does about as well as machine translation links generally do. But look at his construction techniques—I haven't seen anything that clean and rational for a long time.
  • Those who love The Rocketeer (whether the graphic novel or the film) will want to take a look at this, documenting a Swedish inventor who has come damned close to making it real. (Yes, he does look more like Buzz Lightyear than Cliff Secord.) No explanation here of why his pants don't catch fire, but hey, wow.
  • While hunting for a new standard model thumbdrive to replace the no-longer-made Cruzer Mini I ran across this prototype. Not what I need but very cool nonetheless. Let's just hope they don't pollute it with U3.
  • In thinking about non-obvious disruptive technologies, it occurred to me that using nanotech filters to separate gold from seawater could be hugely disruptive to nationalk economies if it became effective. However, with gold at about thirteen ppt (parts per trillion) in seawater, it would take a lot of nanofilm to get any useful quantity. I vaguely recall an old SF story about a guy who pulled gold out of seawater somehow. Anybody remember what that was?

Slide Charts Are Still With Us

Reader Kevin Anetsberger is a fan of nomography (basically, the use of printed charts as calculating aids) and he wrote to say that the sorts of “slide charts” I mentioned in my April 5, 2008 entry are far from extinct—and interestingly enough, the world center of manufacturing for slide charts is back in my home town, Chicago. Kevin mentions three companies, and their Web sites are worth a quick look: Perrygraf, Datalizer, IWA, and American Slide Chart.

And although this was posted in the comments on my LiveJournal mirror, it's worth reposting for everyone else: A monograph on nomographs, courtesy Bill Leininger.

I spent a little time looking for instructions on my father's circular slide rule, and by now I'm pretty sure that the device is a Dietzgen/Gilson Midget Circular Slide Rule. I found what may be a manual for it, but it consists of bad TIF scans of the pages, and it is not easy to read—and the rule itself is so worn that making out the scales in some cases is impossible. It was evidently made by Gilson but private labeled and sold by Dietzgen to fill out their product line. The operation is something I would not have guessed: You position the two sliders separately to appropriate scales, and then slide the two as a unit to a third point to read out the answer. The friction clutch is made such that sliding the short pointer moves only the short pointer, but sliding the long pointer moves them both. (I had not noticed this while fooling around with it.) So you set the long pointer first, then the short pointer (which does not disturb the position of the long pointer) and then move the short pointer by moving the long pointer, at which time the long pointer reads out the answer. Whew.

Interestingly, about 120° of the front face is much more worn than the rest of it, suggesting that my father did a lot of calculating within a relatively narrow range of values. What he used it for is only one of a multitude of things I would ask him, if only I had the chance. What he probably would have said (over a grin) is, “I made things not blow up,” which when your stock in trade is bulk methane would be a very good thing.

If circular slide rules interest you, this page presents a number of different models, none of which precisely match the specimen that I have. And if you want to make your own circular slide rule, here's a page with a full how-to. And here's another site that explains how to make both circular and linear slide rules.

LiveJournal Sentence Sunday

This is a writer thing, which I'm doing at the behest of , and for a (very) rare change it will not appear on the main ContraPositive site on has declared a “Sentence Sunday,” which is a way of provoking discussion among writers on their current projects. It works like this:

1. You go to one of your current novels-in-progress, and find the page number declared for this event.
2. You choose an excerpt beginning at the first complete sentence on that page.
3. You post it where others can read it.
4. You tell everyone what you like about it.
5. People discuss it in the comments.

My only problem is that Melissa has chosen page 123 this time, and although I have a number of novels-in-progress (including a few that have been in progress since the early 1980s) none have gotten to that page yet. Old Catholics has gotten to page 81, and it's the project on which I have the most momentum right now, though with all the jackhammering my mouth has undergone in the last two months, the momentum has been thin. Alana has given me permission to knock out the hundreds column and start with the first complete sentence on page 23. Remarkably, that one page stands together very well:

“They have a church building. And a woman priest! Just like your Episcopal church. That has to count for something, doesn’t it?”

Suzy didn’t nod.

“So let’s make a deal. I’ll call Peter and ask him if he can help me with my laicization paperwork-if you’ll come to their church with me tomorrow. It’s right out Devon Avenue, near Western.”

Suzy puffed out her cheeks and considered. The steam rose from her cup in slow rosettes. “Ok. Deal. But I get to be the judge. If these people are crackpots, I grab your arm, and you leave with me. No questions. No objections. You get up, we leave, and we don’t go back.”

Rob sat silently, his fingers clenching in his lap, thinking of Mrs. Przybysz reading his aura, and imagining a deacon fishing in the cold-air vents for fugitive rosary beads. Suzy’s definition of “crackpot” might not quite match his own. Cutting deals with a brilliant woman like Susan Helms was a lot like gambling, and he knew how good he was at gambling. Making ordinary, rational decisions was hard enough. Taking bets–it was an invitation to humiliation. If this were not the woman he loved, and had loved in absentia virtually his entire adult life…

“Oh–and if you don’t call Peter, I will.”

Rob opened his mouth, afraid what his face would reveal, thinking of Suzy on the phone with his old friend. People had called them a “threesome” back at Loyola, and there had been enough resentment in that to yield more than a little relief in not getting a response from Peter Luchetti. Rob remembered once–was it 1972?–walking along the lakefront with his arm around 5’2” Suzy Helms, and 6’2” Peter on the other side, his arm on her back above Rob’s.

The feeling that rose in him that evening when he was back in his room–anger, jealousy, covetousness, whateverthehell it was–had scared him half-silly and sent him screaming for his confessor. His friendship with Peter was conflicted (and stale) but Suzy’s threat was not idle: Her father, bakery magnate David Warren Helms III, had left a cool three million dollars to the Archdiocese of Chicago upon his death in 2004. Cardinal Peter Luchetti did not answer just anyone’s phone call. But he would answer hers.

Those who have followed my fiction at all know that this is a peculiar thing for me to write: No starships, no aliens, no AIs, no gunfights. It's about a Roman Catholic priest who resigns his parish position in Indianapolis to return to Chicago to the woman he abandoned for the priesthood thirty years earlier. He runs across a (very) eccentric Old Catholic community that includes an ex-con, a psychic little old Polish lady, a former call girl who became a priest, a young computer geek who has a side business converting churches into condos, and a bishop who spent the bulk of his life writing advertising copy. The priest's seminary buddy has since become Chicago's cardinal, and the new Pope–a reactionary conservative from Brazil–is hell-bent on bringing the American Church's liberal wing to heel.

I like it because it's been a necessary exercise in the things that I am not naturally good at: Characterization, nuance, and a story told without chase scenes. I've had to create characters who are eccentric but not ridiculous, and treat with a light heart a set of topics that, often as not, incites people to fury: Should priests be married? Should women be priests? Do we really need a Pope? And what really defines the Catholic idea? That's what I'm reaching for. I'm not sure how successful it will be, but I intend to finish it, and will get back to work as soon as I can chew without wincing, which should be any day now.