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February, 2011:

Drumlin Pressure Cooker

I guess it’s time to at least let you all know that I’m alive, but I’m in death-march mode on Drumlin Circus. In ten minutes I’ll begin writing the action-packed climax, with repeating pistols, flamethrowers, a small hydrogen airship, a self-modifying steam calliope, and the Big Ball of Cesium. Oh, and a few deinotheria, a couple of woolly mammoths, a dire wolf, and all the expected smilodons. And did I mention a coven of witches who don’t believe in magic because they have something better?

This is a collaboration with Jim Strickland, and we intend to have it finished, laid out, and printed by Lulu before AnomalyCon on the 27th. Cover art is on the way, though not having it won’t stop us. (The dog-ear on the cover will say, “Uncorrected Proof” because that’s the standard excuse for slightly overaggressive deadlines. If I hadn’t had the flu for three weeks the damned thing would be done already.)

I’ve written over 8,000 words in the last four days. I have 38,000 words down, and expect the climax to take another 5,000. The story must be finished by 4 PM Wednesday. I expect to make the deadline with difficulty; hell, do you think writing adventures in Victorian diction is easy?

More when I can take a breath.

Odd Lots

  • Okay, I promised more about circuses and steampunk today, but odd lots are piling up.
  • From the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday Department: spudger, a small tool like a miniature putty knife that helps you pry the backs off of watches and electronics, like the monitor I repaired last month. (Thanks to Tom Roderick for alerting me to its existence.)
  • Also from the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday (ok, last month) Department: algophilist , a person who takes sexual pleasure in pain. Broader and more ancient term than “masochist” or “sadist.” (One such appears in Drumlin Circus.) And to think I first thought it was a guy who liked algorithms…
  • Given that Amazon buries the cost of Kindle’s 3G connection in publisher content fees, the lack of graphics (big) within text (small) makes sense. I always thought it was about the crappy low-res e-ink display. It’s not. Here’s how it works.
  • Alas, this may be too late for me. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • From Bill Higgins comes a link to a list (alas, not searchable) of the 200 Borders bookstores that will be disappeared shortly. (PDF) Bogglingly, neither of the Colorado Springs stores are on the list, even the small, always empty, and mostly pointless one at Southgate. I will miss the one in Crystal Lake, though.
  • Guys who come up with schemes like this talk about avoiding government censorship and such, but what will actually drive adoption (if it ever happens) is anonymous file sharing. And nertz, I outlined a novel a couple of years ago describing a technology very much like it. The late George Ewing called this The Weaselrats Effect.
  • Years ago I remember reading somewhere that steam calliopes are hard to keep tuned because the metal whistles expand as steam passes through them, throwing their notes off enough to easily hear. Can’t find a reference now. Running a calliope on compressed air from a tank might be problematic as well, because air stored under pressure gets cold when it’s released. Surprisingly (perhaps unsurprisingly) good technical information on calliopes is hard to come by.
  • Whoa! If you’re interested in solar astronomy, do not miss this video of new monster sunspot 1158 forming out of nothing. It will give you a very crisp feeling for the tubulent nature of the photosphere. Those aren’t spots: They’re solar hurricanes!
  • If you’re reasonably high-latitude (45+ degrees) look north after dark for the next few days. That giant sunspot 1158 is spitting a great deal of energetic chaos in our direction, and the sky could light up as a result.
  • Samsung has announced a new, larger 10.1″ Galaxy Tab, running Android Honeycomb. Details are sparse, but I’m wondering if we’re not ultimately going to see the slate market divide into 7″ and 10″ form factors.
  • Beating cancer may mean we’ll have to be three and a half feet tall, like these mutant Ecuadorians. I’d be good with that–as long as everyone else was three and a half feet tall as well.
  • Gawker Media has a new Web UI that I find so annoying that I’ve mostly stopped reading their sites, which include Io9 and Gizmodo. I could do without sites like Jalopnik and Jezebel, but damn, I’m gonna miss those other two.
  • I have yet to find a good popular history of refrigeration. Somehow I doubt people are going to feel sorry for me about that.

Accidental Steampunk

5,000 words in two days. Wow. I haven’t done fiction at a rate like that since I was wrapping up The Cunning Blood in early 1999. It’s the main reason you haven’t seen me here much recently: I have a hard deadline for a story (this is uncommon; deadlines are for things like computer books and articles) and if I don’t produce at this rate for a little while longer, Drumlin Circus won’t be finished and laid out in time for AnomalyCon in Denver at the end of March. I have 27,200 words down now, out of a target 37,000 – 40,000. That’s heading out of novella territory into the strange turf of short novels, where I’ve never worked before.

But that’s the idea. Ruts are horizons pulled in too close, and I’m trying to push ’em back as much as I can, in as many ways as I can. Those who are familiar with my drumlins stories have gotten comfortable with a sort of Weird Western ambiance, and perhaps a hint of Cowboys & Aliens, except that the aliens are gone to parts unknown, having left all their incomprehensible machinery behind. (I was actually inspired more by Fred Pohl’s Gateway novels, at least in terms of the alien machinery.) So far I’ve focused on the rural and frontier areas of the drumlins planet, but much of Drumlin Circus takes place in the planet’s largest city. There were cowboys aplenty in 1890s Colorado, but out east in 1890s Chicago or 1890s New York, society was radically different.

The Drumlins Saga as a whole is about human castaways on an Earthlike planet who slowly re-create Earth technology and civilization, hoping eventually to repair their starship and return home. They “pass through” stages of technology roughly corresponding to advances in Earth history, and at the time of Drumlin Circus they’re basically gotten to 1890, with steam power and the beginnings of electricity. (The first three Drumlins Saga stories are collected with others in this book. More are planned.)

However, there’s a wildcard: alien machines scattered all over the planet, analogous to 3-D printers with a back-end database of manufacturable parts. Enter a 256-bit binary code, and…something…comes out. Some of these somethings are familiar and useful, some can be repurposed, and some, well, they’re just weird–and maybe dangerous. (Furthermore, there’s a lot of somethings. Do the math.)

So it’s 1890 with a twist.

Drumlin Circus itself recounts a sort of low-level war between a traveling circus and a cultlike research organization called the Bitspace Institute, which is very much a steampunk bad-guys version of the Ralpha Dogs from TCB. The steampunk part wasn’t deliberate, and when I was first defining the Drumlins Saga back in the early 2000’s, I hadn’t read any of the steampunk canon yet. But it’s tough to set a story in an 1890s technological milieu these days and not be accused of steampunking, so at some point I gave up and said, Awright awready. I’m a steampunker. (I’ve even had a top hat since 1999, and you’ve seen this. And this.) I’ll deal with it.

(More tomorrow.)

Uphill Melts First

We’ve had a miserable cold winter here, and whereas we haven’t gotten any more snow than average, the snow that we’ve gotten has been a long time leaving. Over the past four or five days the temps have finally been trending up, and as the snow melted on our sidestreets I once again noticed something I’ve seen the last few winters: The uphill lane melts first.

It’s a fascinating business. It’s consistent, and there are a lot of stiff inclines here on the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain. No matter what street I drive on after a snowfall, it’s the uphill lane that melts first. So the citizen scientist in me started chewing on the question: Why?

My first hypothesis was that on the eastern slope of a mountain, roads running east and west have the uphill lane on the north side, meaning that the southerly winter Sun is more likely to fall unshadowed on the north-lying lane. This may be a factor on some streets, but I quickly found hilly streets running north and south and at odd angles. In all cases (I didn’t find even one exception!) the uphill lanes melted first. This was true even on the north sides of small hills where the road surface got little if any sunlight at all.

This left me only a single hypothesis: That car engines have to work harder to move a vehicle uphill, and therefore the undersurface of the car (engine and exhaust system) are hotter going uphill than downhill, when the engine is basically idling. Heat radiating from the undersides of uphill-traveling cars melts more snow than vehicles idling their way downhill. This is a suburban area rather than rural, and there are a lot of houses up here, all on smallish lots. So traffic is significant, especially at rush hours, when conga lines of minivans and four wheelers (necessary on winter roads with 12% grades) commute down and back to Colorado Springs.

I don’t know how true this is, nor how to test it in a controlled fashion. The snow is now gone, but come next week another experiment will be set up, and I’ll have a chance to look again. (I need to keep a camera in the car so I can snap a picture of the effect in action, something I haven’t done yet.)

If you’ve seen something like this happen in your area, let me know.

Odd Lots

Review: How to Train Your Dragon


Having seen Despicable Me and Monsters vs. Aliens in the past couple of years, I was ready for another delightfully silly kid-flick adventure. And so, my being on the upswing out of the worst flu virus I’ve confronted in twenty-five years, we rented How to Train Your Dragon. Ready for silly! Ready for snotty! Ready for dumb!

Whoa. Not ready. Not. Not even close.


Now, how was I fooled? Consider the premise: Spindly young teen Viking kid named Hiccup assists Gobber the Blacksmith on Berk Island, which has dragons like some Viking islands have mice. The whole tribe considers Hiccup a pointless nuisance–especially the chief, who, alas, just happens to be his father. The other and only slightly older kids have all won their horned helmets and are already in dragon-fighting school. Killing your first dragon is the only way in, and Hiccup tries, not by main force but by building goofy hornpunk weapons like a crossbow that flings bolos. Wham! He downs a dragon with his first shot, but then gets a bad case of empathy and can’t bring himself to finish it off as would earn him the tribe’s respect–and perhaps a second look from long, leggy Viking girl Astrid.

Instead, filled with remorse for having shredded an aerodynamically necessary section of the dragon’s tail with his bolo artillery, Hiccup befriends it, feeds it, and (in his offtime at Gobber’s forge) builds a tail prosthetic to allow the dragon to fly again, teaching it to carry him in the bargain.

That’s how I understood the plot going in, training the dragon and all that. There was plenty of silliness to go around, and the plot twist from you-kill-it-you-eat-it to you-hurt-it-you-heal-it was predictable in a good way. That’s where the surprises began. The first thing that jumped up out of nowhere was the dazzling panoply of landscapes, seascapes, and cloudscapes, rendered with a gorgeously detailed hyperclarity that bordered on surrealism. Backing up these distant descendents of matte paintings was an electrifying score from John Powell (solo, Henry Gregson-Williams was not involved this time) that draws heavily on Celtic themes and gives you a white-knuckle sense for the exhilaration of flying over open water and between the impossible stone spires of Berk’s archipelago.

I was a little surprised that Hiccup was not played more for laughs than he was. Maybe nerd fortune is turning around: Hiccup is a geek and a maker and a sort of Dark Ages citizen scientist, who observes closely and takes good notes in his leather parchment chapbook, quick to challenge the conventional dragon-fighting wisdom of his people and capitalize on his new knowledge. (There is dragon catnip, for example, and Hiccup makes good use of it.) Ultimately, what he discovers is that everything he and his people thought they knew about dragons was wrong, including an extra-large economy-sized surprise that I confess I did not anticipate at all.

The dragon (which Hiccup names “Toothless” before he notices that its teeth are retractable) is a beautifully realized character itself, with a very expressive face that suggests a lot more intelligence than you’d expect in a cartoon animal. All the adult Vikings speak with Scots accents while the kids talk like Chicago north-siders, which seems to be a trope in fantasy film these days. I wonder how many kids understood the sly reference to Hiccup’s horned helmet being made from half of his late mother’s bra. Beyond that, well, no quibbles–basically, no quibbles at all. It’s a fantasy tailored to the peculiar daydreams of geeky 14-year-old boys, and it reminded me how full of daydreams 14 had been.

Daydreams? What’s missing? Nothing: You jump into the saddle of your dragon, the girl whose heart you just won climbs in behind you and wraps her arms around your chest (!!!) and with a roar you’re off into the sky to rescue your knucklehead grownups from their own stubbornness, and prove to your father that he was wrong about you. The neighborhood kids who used to give you wedgies are now your friends and followers and they fall in behind you, each on a dragon too. But you’re not on just any old dragon: Your dragon is the Corvette of dragons, the ink-black, blue-lightning-spitting Night Fury that no one–no one–has ever tamed before you did.


I won’t spoil the rest, assuming there’s anybody in the Western Hemisphere who hasn’t seen it yet. The crude humor is kept to a minimum (compared especially to Shrek and Robots) but I think preschoolers will find the dragons frightening. And while I admit that I’m peculiarly vulnerable to films about boys who win their fathers’ respect, I still insist it’s the best cartoon fantasy in years.

Very highly recommended.

Snow Witches In Your Area!

I am not completely (or even mostly) recovered, but I decided to get out of bed, put real clothes on, and walk around some today. My chest congestion is lingering even as runny nose and burning eyes improve, and it is possible for a weakened individual to contract hypostatic pneumonia just by lying horizontal in bed for too long.

That all by itself was motivation to stop living in my robe. I am not running any marathons (not when it’s -5F outside) but I’m fighting back the chaos in my inbox and eating real food on a regular basis.

And I was watching Tom Skilling this morning on the WGN cable feed to get a sense for the precedented (I froze my 14-year-old ass in the precedent) but still impressive snowstorm about to descend on Chicago. I found myself paying attention to something I typically ignore: realtime closed captioning. Carol had turned it on last night while she was grinding the Pack’s collective toenails with her very effective but noisy cordless Dremel. Captioning does help in noisy environments, as anyone who’s watched TV in a crowded fitness center will testify.

I soon discovered a wonderful source of found humor. When one of the announcers said, “If you go out in the snow, please dress appropriately!” the caption read IF YOU GO OUT IN THE SNOW PEAS DRESS APPROPRIATELY. Later on we had a Web cam view from POSOLE, OKLAHOMA, where the snow is coming down as thick as…hominy? (I don’t recall what the audio actually said.)

But I laughed until I coughed (not that that’s hard) when the announcer said “…of the snow which is in your area” and the caption read …OF THE SNOW WITCHES IN YOUR AREA.


So don’t blame the Jet Stream. Or moist Gulf air. Or global warming. It’s the witches, people. WGN said so. Quick, Aslan, the Flit!