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September, 2010:

Not Your Average Roof Job

I’ve been scarce here this past week, and for a reason: I’ve felt lousy since Tuesday or so, with headaches, mild queasies, and a weird prickly surface pain on the skin of my back, just under my left shoulder blade. The headaches may be due to my trick neck, which throws all kinds of tantrums (including headaches) whenever I look up too high. The back pain was a puzzle; I thought it might have been a pulled muscle from a rough weight training session a week ago Thursday, but it’s not as deep a pain as with other muscles I’ve molested over the years.

Carol scratched her head as I downed another couple of Tylenol yesterday noonish, and said, “I sure hope it isn’t shingles.” I didn’t think so. No spots. So about 3:30, when I found myself scratching an itch on my back, I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror.


We called a dermatologist I saw some years back, but Friday being Friday, his office was already closed. With that not an option, Carol sent me packing to our HMO’s Urgent Care facility so fast my head spun. Sure ’nuff, the little bastards that gave me chicken pox in 1960 have been hanging out in my nerve fibers for half a century, and just happened to choose this week to come out and party.

So I’m on antivirals and Prednisone for awhile. Physician said I did very well by coming in an hour and a half after pegging the symptoms–which is all due to my brilliant wife’s intuition and expertise–since most people don’t look for help until the outbreak is much further along and the antivirals don’t work as well. That’s good, because if it gets a whole lot worse than this I’ll be a very unhappy guy.

More as it happens. Or doesn’t. Oremus.

Flying a Hi-Flier–If Not Very High

PegasusKiteFlying500Wide.jpgYesterday afternoon, Carol and I went down to the schoolyard near Safeway, and we did something I keep telling people not to do: We flew a vintage kite. It was an experiment to see if my advice was always good, or if there might be exceptions.

The advice came out of three separate experiences I’ve had in the last ten years, attempting to fly vintage kites. In each case, the kite didn’t survive even five minutes in the air. In one case, the paper sail more or less disintegrated, and in retrospect I should have seen that one coming. Mercifully, it wasn’t an especially valuable kite, and it was in lousy shape.

CarolAndPegasusKite350Wide.jpgIn the other two cases, it was the sticks that went. Both times, wind pressure against the kite caused the bow stick to snap at the vertical spar. In neither case was the breeze hurricanic, or even particularly fresh. The lesson? Thin sticks of cheap pine dry out over forty or fifty years and get very brittle.

In this case, the kite in question was present in a lot of ten kites I bought at auction. It’s a 36″ Hi-Flier “Pegasus” plastic kite from the mid-1970s. Its sticks were already cracked, and I simply replaced them with new wood of similar size bought at Hobby Lobby and cut to the same length. The plastic sail had remained wrapped tightly around the sticks in an (evidently) very warm place since 1975, with the expected crinkles and bleedover of the paint on the plastic. So it wasn’t a great kite to begin with, and probably the worst in the lot of ten. If I lost it, I wouldn’t cry. (Too hard, at least.)

The wind was a little stiff for this kind of kite; probably 15 MPH. In a 6-8 MPH breeze they often fly well without a tail at all, but I gave it about seven feet of tassel-tail made out of kite-paper rectangles pinched in the middle and taped to a mylar ribbon. And well that I did: It went a little wild with about 100 feet of string out, which is all I wanted to give it. Any more, and it would have been out over Highway 115 or (worse) Fort Carson. There was plenty of leaning and looping and a couple of outright nose-down crashes into the grass, but nothing broke and nothing tore.

The mark of a truly successful flight is being able to lie on your back on the hillside, and after the wind shifted to the north a little and banked down to about 10 MPH, things got satisfyingly snoozy and I declared the outing a total success. Reeled the kite in and took it home, and I may in fact dare to fly it again at some point. So the advice against flying old kites is generally true if the old kites are really old, and all original equipment. Replace the sticks with new pine, and if the sail isn’t already crumbling to dust, well, you’ve got a chance. Tree problems, heh: That’s up to you.


The Pulps Reconsidered, Part 4

BasketballStoriesCover350Wide.jpgThe essential difference between literary (as we define it today) and non-literary fiction didn’t crystallize for me until first-person shooters happened. I’m not one for games in general, but an hour or two playing early shooter games like Doom and Quake back in the 90s was an epiphany: This is a species of fiction. The following years proved me right. Most ambitious action games have at least a backstory of some kind, and some modern MMORPG systems have whole paperback novels distilled from them. (See Tony Gonzales’ EVE: The Empyrean Age, based on EVE Online.)

Of course it’s not literature. Did anybody say it was?

What it is is something else, something important: immersive. You get into a good game, and you’re there. I can do the same thing with a decent SF novel, but the phenomenon is in no way limited to SF. I’m guessing that Farmville or almost any reasonably detailed simulation works the same way.

Immersivity is the continental divide between literary fiction and pulp fiction. Like anything else in the human sphere it’s a spectrum, placing World of Warcraft on one end and Finnegan’s Wake on the other, with everything else falling somewhere in the middle. The term measures the degree to which you can lose yourself in a work, where “lose yourself” means “forget that you’re reading/playing and enter into experiential flow.”

Don’t apply a value scale to immersivity. It’s only one dimension of many to be found in fiction, and my point here isn’t to dump on Finnegan’s Wake. Literature is intended to evoke a response in the reader, but that response is not necessarily immersion. (It can be, particularly with classics like Huckleberry Finn that are new enough to be culturally familiar to us–dare you to read Chaucer without footnotes!–and yet not so new as to be afraid of Virginia Woolf.)

Pulling the reader in and carrying him/her along requires a smooth, linear narrative style, a vivid setting, and enough going on to maintain the reader’s interest after a long day working a crappy job. Pulp characters are often types, but that’s not necessarily due to a lack of skill on the writer’s part. A carefully chosen and well-written type allows room for a reader to imagine being that character, which is important in immersive fiction. As much as I enjoyed Gene Wolfe’s massive Book of the New Sun (and I’ve read it three times since its publication) I had a very hard time imagining myself as Severian. I empathize with him and certainly enjoyed watching him against the dazzling surreality of Urth (though I had to read numerous sections several times to be sure I knew what was going on) but being him? No chance. Keith Laumer’s Retief, on the other hand, no problem. Louis Wu? Same deal.

And for the umptieth time: (I can hear the knives being sharpened) This is not to denigrate literary fiction, of which I’ve read a lot and still do. My point is that immersive fiction is a valid entertainment medium, requiring different mechanisms and different skills than literary fiction. Let’s not dump on things for simply being easy to read. Easy is good if easy is what you want–and (on the author side) if easy is what people are willing to pay for.

Which should not suggest that easy to read is necessarily easy to do. The immersive magic of the pulps is obscured by the fact that a lot of it was just badly done, and could not have been otherwise, given that some pulp titles paid a quarter cent a word and published eighty thousand words twice a month. We can do much better these days, at least on the quality side. A brilliant potboiler is eminently possible–if we as readers give authors some sense that it’s ok to take up the challenge, and that they’ll be paid for their efforts when they succeed.

More in this series as time allows.


Jeff&NanKress500Wide.jpgI’m preparing a writer’s autobiography for Gale Research, and they requested photos of me at various points in my career. One of the most interesting–and one I haven’t seen in a while–was taken by Peter Frisch back in 1983, when we lived in Rochester, NY. Nancy Kress and I had just finished “Borovsky’s Hollow Woman,” and I was in my Chester A. Arthur stage. I want to say it was in connection with a TV interview that she and I gave, but I’ve forgotten most of the details. It did occur to me that the facial hair/leather vest thing had a certain steampunkish air about it, but steampunk itself wouldn’t exist for another fifteen years or so, and once again I was too far ahead of the curve for it to do me any good.

ChesterAArthur.jpgPresident Arthur was an interesting guy in his own right, an unelected one-term, one-issue president hell-bent on reforming the civil service system, otherwise mostly famous for his linear facial hair and serving between James A. Garfield and Grover Cleveland. He appeared on what I believe is our nation’s only 21 cent stamp, issued because we had many more past presidents than postal rates back in 1938. I commemorated him by naming the President of Valinor (of my Drumlins saga) Chester A. Arthur Harczak mostly after him, but also after a well-known Chicago sausage factory. This fairly represents my opinion of most politics.

The other excitement in recent days is that we have a daytime bear here. Four times since Tuesday I’ve been driving through the neighborhood and seen him sitting nonchalantly in front of an overturned garbage can in broad daylight, feasting. Bears are generally nocturnal but this one didn’t read the manual, and he’s been raiding dog food bins in people’s garages and scaring the crap out of the unwary. I actually stayed in the garage yesterday tidying up, from 8 AM, when I put the cans out, until about 11 when the trash guys came by, to make sure he wouldn’t make a mess in our driveway as he’s made in so many others. Now, precisely what I was going to do if he decided to raid the can is unclear. Per my entry for September 8, 2010, I do have a hacksaw here, but not a pistol that a bear would understand. (And bears have been known to open freezers all by themselves.)

ForkAndStraightener.jpgNo bear action, alas (or whew) but I did get the garage about as tidy as it’s been since the day before we moved in back in 2004. Our rear wall full of brand-new Elfa shelving system absorbed a boggling amount of clutter, allowing me to get my tool shelves in order and compacted (I now have empty shelf space!) and actually schedule time to wipe down, oil, and maybe even use my lathe.

Given that we never saw the bear, yesterday’s highlights included finding my tube pin straightener and my father’s tuning fork (stamped “A”) neither of which I’d seen since the last century. I’m out of Diet Mountain Dew and my back hurts, but overall I still consider it a win.

Odd Lots

  • It keeps a very low profile somehow, but this NOAA site is the first place I go when I want to see what a hurricane is doing. We’re a little short of hurricanes this year, but I’m good with that.
  • This is what a pharmacy sign looks like in some parts of Europe. Thanks to Terry Dullmaier (in Germany) for the link. Terry didn’t know if the middle neon part goes off to indicate that the pharmacy is closed. Anybody?
  • I’ve discovered a great little free clock app for Linux, called the Cairo Clock. It can run in 24-hour mode and is skinnable, with about two dozen different skins available, some of them pretty weird. The skin I like is called Radium, and it (by choice) has a negative weirdness factor: It looks like an old wristwatch I got from my grandfather when I was a kid, which had radium paint on the hands and hour points. The second hand actually ticks forward and then falls back a little, as second hands driven by mechanical escapements used to do. I’d run it on Windows if I could.
  • From the No-Models-Were-X-Rayed-To-Produce-This-Calendar Department: The now-famous X-Ray pinup calendar floated as a promo by EIZO was a fake, albeit a mighty impressive one.
  • Bill Higgins put me on to NNDB, which is a biography site and useful for that alone…but take some time to poke at their mapping mechanism, which plots connections between significant people both living and dead. Cool factor 11 out of 10; making the maps useful probably takes more practice than I’ve been able to give it so far–and you must keep in mind that every relationship charted is somebody’s opinion of something.
  • There is a natural bridge on the Moon. (And I thought Straight Wall was impressive!) Thanks to Darrin Chandler for the link.
  • Numbers may be hard to grasp; precision and scale are even harder. This animation may help a little. (Thanks to Chuck Ott for the link.)
  • I don’t care how silly an idea it is. These guys get points for…something.

The Pulps Reconsidered, Part 3


Bet you thought I forgot about this series, huh? Not so: I needed a little time to take a broader look at the field. (Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.) Someone told me that a lot of 1930s/40s/50s pulps were being scanned and posted on Usenet at, so I went up there and pulled down a representative sample. And I’m not talking SF anymore; what I grabbed were things like Air Wonder Stories, Mammoth Western, Strange Detective Mysteries, Adventure, and Spicy Stories.

It’s been wonderful fun. In fact, it’s a lot like watching campy old b/w TV shows, only better, because I can decide how everybody and everything looks. I don’t have to be appalled (or giggle) at the cheap crappy special effects. I just willingly enter a world in which nobody rolls their eyes at a homicidal supermarket butcher about to strangle a square-jawed hero armed with a pistol in one hand and a hacksaw in the other. (See above. No, I didn’t read that story. I still wonder what the hacksaw was about.)

I’m not the first to suggest that the pulps vanished largely because TV took over their niche. The pulps were Saturday-morning movie serials that you could enjoy any time you wanted, and once TV started showing Commando Cody, Bomba the Jungle Boy, Flash Gordon, and made-for-TV adventures like The Texas Rangers, Sky King and Highway Patrol, much of the money went out of pulp publishing. The financial pressure was eventually fatal, but over the short term, as the pulps dwindled, their quality went up. And it wasn’t just that we knew more about science and technology and hence could write better SF. The SF of the Thirties was awful because the readership didn’t care. The pulps had a monopoly on cheap entertainment and people bought it because it was all there was, and reading it was better than staring at the wall.

Print entertainment evolved out of the pulps and into other print markets, particularly glossy mags. The railroad pulps died, but glossy, ad-supported magazines like Trains and Railroad picked up the readership, which after WWII had more money to spend on locomotive picture books and model railroading. Tacky text-porn mags like Spicy Stories (which had racy drawings and a handful of “artful” b/w nude photos) gave way to Playboy and its cheaper imitators as social strictures against visual porn weakened in the 50s. In the late 50s, pulp SF improved hugely, and bootstrapped itself into the new world of mass-market paperbacks by selling reprint anthologies of the best work to come out of the pulp era. (We can be fooled into thinking 30s and 40s pulp SF was better than it was because what we read of it was hand-picked for quality decades after its publication. Read a couple of original SF pulps circa 1935 and you’ll see what I mean.) Crime pulps went both up and down, to comics on the low end (much of “crime” fiction from the Depression was actually horror) and to book-length mysteries on the high end. The romance pulps like My Romance split similarly into gossip mags and mass-market romance novels.

Fewer people may be reading these days, but those who gave it up probably never liked reading that much to begin with. Again, reading was better than staring at the wall, but TV, when it arrived, was easier, especially for people with marginal education. The audience that remained was pickier, and many had been formally exposed at the college level to classic literature, which became the standard by which all fiction was measured.

And that may be a mistake. (I’ll come back to this point in a future entry.)

Leaving the quality of the writing itself as a separate issue, after a good long look around I’d say that the lessons of the pulps are these:

  • The pulps were about specific cultures. They were tightly linked to a time and a place and a generally understood cultural subtext. This was even true of early pulp SF, much of which might be characterized as “Depression-era Chicago on Mars.”
  • Characters were intended as costumes to be worn by readers, not fully realized individuals to be admired on their own merits as independent men and women. A lot of people don’t understand this, and many still won’t admit it. Make characters too vividly fluky and original, and readers will have a hard time identifying with them.
  • As a corollary to the above: Concepts, settings, and action were as important as characters, and much more vivid. Again, it’s the difference between imagining yourself driving a fast car and imagining someone else driving it.
  • The pulps were fun. They understood and accepted their role as immersive entertainment. They were not equipped to be literature and didn’t try to be literature.

With all that in mind, the big questions become: Is there unmet demand today for good-quality immersive (non-literary) fiction? How much of this legacy can we retrieve in 2010 and do well?

More next time.

Odd Lots

Drink Hard, Live Longer

Judging by the number of times I’ve seen links to it online yesterday and today, the liveliest Web story in recent memory is an item suggesting that heavy drinkers live longer than nondrinkers. The curve isn’t linear; moderate drinkers live longer than both heavy drinkers and nondrinkers. The WTF moment lies entirely in the correlation between nondrinking and shorter lifespans.

The science looks good here: The sample size was big enough to be trustable, and the researchers controlled for a lot of factors, including socioeconomic class, physical activity, social isolation, and so on. So we can’t write it off out of hand. But what in tarnation is going on? Is a little alcohol really good for you?

I think it may be. But let’s not get completely hung up on the alcohol. I have an intuition that what we’re seeing are not the effects of the alcohol itself, but consequences of the psychology of people who won’t touch the stuff.

I’m talking about scruples. That word is generally seen as religious jargon today, so I might better characterize it as “lifestyle panic.” There is a psychology that constantly walks on eggs, fretting at a very deep level that one false move in some direction (or many, or a multitude) will lead to early death or eternal damnation. This can be an inculcated attitude (the priests of my youth tried very hard to make us panic over “impure thoughts,” and often succeeded) but I think the underlying psychology is inborn. My mother basically died of scruples, and I’ve been fighting the tendency most of my life. If I’m “soft” on sex and divine judgment, that’s certainly a big part of the reason.

The New York Times published an article about food scruples some months back, quoting a researcher who said that “…all of these women I kept meeting…were scared to death if they didn’t eat a cup of blueberries a day they would drop dead.” This is of a piece with “fat panic,” which I see all the time. That pugnacious scientific fraud Ancel Keys has convinced hundreds of millions of people that fat will kill them, when more and more science is pointing in the other direction. Fatty acids are essential. Not eating enough fat will probably kill you a lot quicker.

My thought is this: People prone to lifestyle panic are the least likely to drink–but the most likely to live lives that are cortisol thrill rides, keeping their arteries in a continuous state of inflammation. That’ll kill you fersure if it goes on long enough.

So there’s a type of selection going on here that isn’t being adequately addressed. Some people worry constantly that they’re doing the wrong thing, no matter what it is that they’re actually doing, nor how virtuous their lives objectively are. The effect seems inborn and may not be curable. I’m not sure I buy the obvious objection, which is that alcohol makes you worry less. One reason I drink very little is that when I drink I worry that drinking will disrupt my sleep or give me headaches. It sounds weird, but becoming less inhibited does not mean worrying less. (That’s certainly been the case with me.) Inhibition and worry are two different (if perhaps related) things.

Moderate drinkers are people who are not panicked enough to avoid alcohol entirely, but still careful enough to know that too much will do permanent damage. In other words, they’re fundamentally sane. If they live the longest, well, that doesn’t surprise me at all.