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July, 2011:

For All That Will Be, Yes!

Carol and I met 42 years ago this evening. I’ve told the story before, and the backstory. The oldest known photo of the two of us together is here, not quite a month after we met. I won’t go on at length this evening, but I will mention that in 1974, just before she went away to grad school, Carol made me a banner with the inscription, “For all that has been, Thank you. For all that will be, Yes.”

I went up to her a little while ago and said the same thing to her. Funny how it sounds just as good now (and is just as true!) as it was way back in 1974.

Odd Lots

Last Night Was a Gas

Yes, last night was a gas. (Do people still say that?) It really was. And I didn’t much enjoy it.

Here’s the story: It was 6:45 PM. We were done with dinner, dishes washed, everything put away. I was back in my office and had begun to scan Facebook. I heard a noise. It sounded like one of the pop-up sprinkler risers when you first turn it on and water is driving the air out: A steady hiss, but loud. Anomalously loud; almost an embryonic roar. I was inside. The risers are all outside. I heard it very clearly. And so I went out the front door to take a look.

The roar was startling–at least on our quiet street, where almost any loud noise is startling. It was coming from the lowest level of the landscaping terraces to the south of our front door, right below my office windows, where the control box and pipes for the sprinkler system are located.

Something obviously broke somewhere. But where was the spraying water? I picked my way around the terraces and hopped down to the lowest level where the pipes were–and the reek of ethyl mercaptan almost knocked me over. The roar was coming from the street feed riser pipe where it met the gas meter. I passed my hand along the riser pipe and felt a strong jet of what suggested compressed air coming from the pipe joint at the meter. It took a moment for the truth to hit me: methane was roaring out of our gas feed at 30 PSI. I hadn’t smelled it because the wind was from the north and the gas meter is near the south end of the house.

The pipe looked as though someone had tried to cut it with a knife. It was still attached to the meter coupling but the metal had opened up where the threads began, to leave a gap at least 3/8″ wide. I only gave myself a second to think WTF? Then I remembered my father’s lessons. He worked for the Chicago natural gas utility his entire career, as an industrial engineer. He knew methane all the way down. He enjoyed ridiculing the vague statements in my kid astronomy books describing Jupiter’s atmosphere as consisting of “poisonous ammonia and methane gas.” Methane gas isn’t poisonous the way ammonia or even carbon monoxide is. However–it burns. That’s its job. Get enough of it in one place, and it blows up.

Carol had followed me out the door when I told her I thought the sprinkler system had erupted again. I called up from the terrace that we had a gas leak, a huge big honking might-as-well-be-an-open-pipe gas leak. I climbed back up the terrace walls in a helluva hurry, and while she threw leashes on the dogs I grabbed the cordless and dialed 911.

The call itself took maybe thirty seconds, and the operator handled it with an icy coolness that I greatly admire. She got the address and called the fire department. Then she told us to make sure no one was still in the house, and then move upwind of the leak by 300 feet.

We’re only a few blocks from the Farthing fire station. The truck was pulling up three minutes later. The firemen took one look at the leak (which you could hear over the rumble of the fire truck’s engine, egad) and started unrolling hoses over to the hydrant. That was a little unnerving, but one came over and explained: The pipe break was on the street side of the main, so flipping the shutoff valve on the gas meter would do nothing. They had already called for another truck with more specific equipment, but in the meantime they wanted hoses at ready in case the methane ignited.

We stood and watched. A second truck came by about ten minutes later, followed by a truck from the gas utility. They carefully cut the pipe (I couldn’t see precisely how it was done) and put a cap on it. They went through the house and opened all the windows. The fire trucks left soon after, but the utility techs worked until almost 11:00PM digging under the riser pipe to find the street feed. The riser has to be replaced, so there will be more digging. In the meantime, they ran a stiff coiled yellow plastic gas hose from the street side of our next-door neighbor’s gas meter.

So what happened? The utility guys had seen it before: The ground under the gas meter has been settling ever since we built the house eight years ago, pulling the natural gas riser pipe down with it. The gas meter was off-level, and has been for years. I never gave it much thought. The riser pipe pulled down on the gas meter until stresses on the riser pipe caused it to break at its thinnnest point, the threads.

We’ve had subsidence problems here for years. So not only did the settling destroy one sidewalk (which was replaced) and then mangled my driveway, it almost blew the place up. There’s a lesson here: If your gas meter isn’t level, the riser pipe may be pulling it down as the soil settles. If the riser is pulled downward enough, the pipe will crack. I’m a little amazed that the gas utility hasn’t publicized this problem more broadly.

Go take a look at your gas meter. If it’s cockeyed, the riser may be pulling one side of it down–and that leads to a species of fun you do not want to have!

Taos Toolbox 2011, Part 2

Jim And Nan Coffee 500 Wide.jpg

(Part 1 here.) The Snow Bear Inn is really a set of ski condos only a quarter mile from one of the Taos Ski Valley lifts. The units are complete apartments including kitchens, some with single bedrooms, some with two. Jim Strickland and I shared a two-bedroom suite. The kitchen was well-equipped; indeed, far better equipped than we needed. It had a separate wine refrigerator, coffee grinder, four-slot toaster, blender, crockpot, and probably a few other things on the high shelf that we never poked at. Food was provided in the common room for tinker-it-up breakfasts and lunches. Four dinners a week were catered in by a local woman who really knew her stuff.

Jim and I quickly fell into a daily routine: I’d be up at 6, showered by 6:15, and shoveling grounds into the coffee maker by 6:30. Jim got up about then, and I’d scramble two eggs for each of us. By 7:30 we were already hard at work unless someone stopped by for coffee, as Nancy Kress did more than once. (See above.) But even with morning visitors, by 8:30 both of us were reading mail and hammering out notes on the manuscripts up for critique later that day.

By 10:00 we were gathered around the conference table in the common area downstairs, and if anybody wasn’t there by precisely 10, Walter would lean out the door and give a blast on the Air Horn of Summoning. This happened rarely; mostly we were all present and ready to roar by 9:45. On most days work began with a lecture by Nancy, followed by a short break and then either two or three stories for critique. Lunch happened as time allowed, often before the third critique but always limited to thirty minutes. The class day wrapped up with a lecture from Walter. At that point, typically between two and three PM, we would shift into edit mode, and begin work on the following day’s critiques and our own second-week submissions. Some worked in the common room. Most of us went back to our own rooms. (Alan Smale preferred to sit with his laptop on a folding chair between the buildings.)

I quickly fell back into college-student mode, taking notes on a quad pad in my frenetic block printing, precisely as I did at DePaul in 1974. By Tuesday July 12 we were definitely into drink-from-the-firehose mode, critiquing first-wave submissions (distributed via email before the workshop began) that ran as long as 11,000 words. Toward midweek we were also working hard on our second-week submissions, which nominally demonstrated what we’d learned in the first few days.

Peter Ed After Dinner.jpg

Dinner was catered in at 6PM every day but Friday. While not exotic, the fare was beautifully prepared, and included barbecued ribs, coconut shrimp, broiled tilapia, grilled steaks, baked chicken breast, home-made potato & egg salad, and lots of other things I may have been too tapped-out mentally to recall. There was always good conversation over dinner (see above: Peter Charron and Ed Rosick) but by 6:45 most of us to our scattered laptops went, continuing work for the following day. I sometimes kept hammering until 8 or 8:30. At that point I was toast and generally gave Carol a call before falling exhausted into bed. There was a little late-night fellowship over bottles of wine down in the common room, but it all happened long after my bedtime.

Some people managed to get the 20-odd miles down the valley to Taos for occasional shopping or touristing, but my old bones preferred to stay put and rest while rest was possible. The impression I want to give here is that this was boggling hard work, and unlike my Clarion experience back in 1973, there was almost no clowning around.

My camera doesn’t do a great job with indoor shots. For a good collection of captured moments from the workshop, see Christie Yant’s Flicker album.

Next: How critiquing worked.

Taos Toolbox 2011, Part 1


I got home yesterday afternoon, and the smoke is still coming out of my ears. I haven’t posted here recently because it was all I could do to stay ahead of the coursework and the critique. My friend Jim Strickland described it as “a 500-level course on the art of the novel crammed into two weeks.”

That’s putting it mildly.

What I’m talking about is Walter Jon WilliamsTaos Toolbox writers’ workshop, which just concluded yesterday morning at the Snow Bear Inn at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico. The workshop was taught this year by Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress, with a guest lecture by Jack Skillingstead. Jim Strickland drove down from Denver Sunday morning and stashed his car in our garage, then joined me in the 4Runner for the 225 miles to Taos. I took my completed steampunk computer table, to which I had grafted the Aethernet Concentrator scant days before we left. Carrying the table, the pipe legs, the Concentrator mast, a Dell GX620 system with 20″ monitor, an ammo can full of tools, plus clothes and a cooler full of food up the stairs from the parking lot took some doing, as we were at 9,800 feet. Mountain geek I may be, but one chases oxygen atoms like fireflies up there.


This is not a workshop for beginners. Jim and I were two of fourteen students, of which I was the oldest. Not one was under thirty. Most of us had already sold one or more short stories, and at least three of us have sold novels. Jim has two novels in print (plus a short Drumlins novel), and astrophysicist Alan Smale was recently nominated for the Sidewise Award for alternate history. Christie Yant is Assistant Editor at Lightspeed Magazine. One had the sense of a mass of talent around the common-room table that could (with just a few more neutrons) go critical.

For two weeks we heard lectures, took notes, discussed the issues, and presented both written and oral critiques of one another’s work. Oh, and sometimes we ate and (more occasionally) slept. When we were not at the big conference table, we were back in our respective lairs, reading manuscripts and hammering on laptops or (like me) larger iron. All told, we each read and critiqued about 200,000 words of material. It took ten days for us to loosen up sufficiently to set aside time to crack a few bottles of wine and a bottle of The Kraken 94-proof dark rum. (This was highly appropriate, as student Jeffrey Petersen had presented a novel starring a giant…flying…squid.) Walter complimented us as being the hardest-working class he’s hosted in several years conducting the workshop. We worked so hard that almost nobody hit the hot tub. By the last day, Nancy Kress herself told the class, “I am just about out of words.”

Words. It was about words. It was about making our words do precisely what we want them to do, and then getting them into the hands of our readers. It was one of the most intellectually challenging things I have ever done. I left emotionally and physically exhausted and am still catching up. It was expensive, but worth every penny. It may have rebooted my career as an SF writer.

More tomorrow.

Drumlin Neologism

Now that the Copperwood Double #1 (containing Drumlin Circus and On Gossamer Wings by Jim Strickland) has been out there for awhile, people have begun asking me again:

  1. You do know that a “drumlin” is a kind of hill, don’t you? (Yes.)
  2. Whythehell did you call your alien whatchacallits “drumlins”? (Read on.)

Language evolves to meet the needs of ordinary people. When a word doesn’t exist for a new concept, one will show up pretty quickly. Trade names will be genericized (xerox and kleenex are the best examples), wordsmiths will glue two or three things together, sometimes existing but obscure word will be repurposed, and occasionally something brand new will just appear out of nowhere.

SF writers are faced with this problem all the time. Back in the Sixties we assumed that three-dimensional television was just around the corner, and we struggled to come up with snappy terms for the idea. In my very early SF I used “triovision” and (later) “tridiac.” William Tenn’s “teledar” has always been one of my favorites. It has to be short and it has to trip easily off the tongue, or nobody will use it. Utterly invented words are hit and miss: I have long gotten flack for using the (invented) words “snerf,” “gront,” “blik,” and “frot” in stories involving witchery, as in “Whale Meat“; they are terms for difficult-to-describe mental powers that ordinary humans do not have. This was dangerous pre-Google: I innocently thought that I had invented the word “frot” in 1974 but, alas, I had not. (The witch-power later became “zot.”) Schmitz did a lot better with his “Sheewash Drive”, and never explained the origin of the term. Wholly fabricated words like that often sound silly, and work much better in whimsical or outright humorous tales. (Remember “lesnerize“?)

So there I sat in the summer of 2000, working out the details of a new story that I eventually called “Drumlin Boiler.” The concept had been cooking in the back of my head for some time: A starship full of human castaways on an unknown Earthlike planet discover alien machines scattered every few miles across the landscape. Today we might call the alien machines 3D printers or nanofabricators, because they make things: You tap in a 256-bit binary code to the machines’ two control surfaces, and an artifact bubbles up from a wide, shallow bowl filled with gray dust. What would people call the machines? I considered and threw out a number of outright fabrications, none of which I clearly recall. I tried a lot of derivatives, especially compressions of existing terms. “Cornies” was short for “cornucopias,” but it sounded more like breakfast cereal. Pass. Ditto “nanners,” for “nanofabricators.” “Tappers” had a lot more promise, and the alien machines were almost called tappers. I hesitated because the machines were not what was doing the tapping. Ultimately I went with “thingmakers,” because, well, that’s what they did.

I still needed a snappy name for the artifacts that came out of the thingmakers. My first candidate actually won, in a way: “thingies” are what rural people call the devices constructed by the thingmakers, particularly ones with no obvious use. It’s evocative, but it’s also inherently informal. I needed something better, something city people might use as readily as rural people. I had a long brainstorming list, which has perished, but included existing and invented terms like “dusters,” “drigs,” “drins,” and “yaags” (Yet Another Alien Gadget). The short list favorite was “tappit.” About then I got the notion that the two control surfaces would provide feedback with distinct sharp sounds. Adding sound to the images in my mind, what tapping out a code on the thingmaker pillars suggested more than anything else was banging on a set of bongo drums. Drummits? I liked that better. Drummings? Closer to purely descriptive–but somehow it suggested the slightly silly word “dumplings.” Then the word “drumlin” popped into my head. I’ll admit, I had heard the word before but didn’t know crisply what it was. I looked it up. I liked the word a lot. It spoke easily and suggested a thing that came about by drumming. The true definition seemed mighty obscure to me: A teardrop-shaped glacial hill. I figured not one person in fifty would know that.

So I repurposed it.

The word works very well in its new context, and the hills it truly refers to are rare enough so that I don’t think much confusion results. It can act as both a noun and an adjective. I think most people, especially those outside the hiking and skiing communities, probably assume that it’s a neologism.

The Naming of Invented Things is a serious challenge in SFF. I’ve written about it before. It’s about making the un-real not only sound real, but familiar–and it’s way tougher than it looks!

Odd Lots

  • Freedom matters, and in honor of Independence Day here’s an eye-opening report on the “state of freedom” in the fifty American states. I knew a lot of this from my research nine years ago, when Carol and I decided to leave Arizona, but it’s nice to see it all in one free (in the other sense) document.
  • From the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday Department: draisine, a human-powered device for moving over railroad rails. This is evidently a European term; over here these are called handcars or inspection speeders or rail cycles or a number of other things. Definitely note the hot-pink draisine-built-for-two on the Wikipedia page. (Thanks to Aki Peltonen for dropping the word to me.)
  • Although I’m sure that everyone in the civilized galaxy has seen the cartoon, I wasn’t aware that “thagomizer” is now paleobiological jargon. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Here’s a list of somebody’s picks as the ten best hard SF books of all time. I agree with about 50% of the picks, though Robinson’s Mars trilogy was so slow and padded-out that I could barely finish it. (I have not yet read the Egan book cited.) I sense as well that Somebody Doesn’t Like Heinlein’s Politics. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • Despite a 500-fold increase in cell phone use in the last 20 years, malignant brain tumor diagnosis is down in that timeframe. This interests me, as three people I knew died of brain tumors (the largest cancer cluster in my circle of acquaintance) and it makes me wonder. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • I had just a couple of comic books back in the early Sixties, and one of the most intriguing was an extra-long number from DC called Secret Origins that had the backstory for five or six of the most famous DC superheroes. Oddly, what I remember most clearly was the backstory for Green Lantern, especially the little blue guys on the Planet Without Consonants and (most intriguing of all) a power ring with a flaw that prevented it from working against anything yellow. Trouble is, if you remove the flaw, the ring loses its power completely. Now that’s cool–alas, in what may be the canonical Green Lantern for Dummies page, the yellow gotcha isn’t stated clearly and I wonder if it was just abandoned back in the 1960s.
  • Forgot to aggregate this back in January: One of the most bizarre articles I’ve ever read on any major site in recent years. This totally, completely, utterly certain guy is angry at other guys for being totally, completely, and utterly certain–and that about something totally, completely, and utterly trivial. My take: We “know” nothing at all with certainty, and the more certain you are that you’re right, the more certain the rest of us should be that you’re wrong. Nyah-nyah!
  • And another Odd Lot that has lain around for some time: Polish troops trained a young bear to carry ammo during the Battle of Monte Cassino. My father was at that battle, working a radio station on the back of a truck, but he never mentioned seeing the bear. The bear is said to never have dropped any munitions, which I’m sure was a good thing for the bear, and possibly my father as well.
  • Here’s a bogglingly weird Dickensian artifact that I’d never heard of before: A key gun. It’s a gun built into the key to a (large) prison cell lock. I’m sure if it had worked better I would have seen it before now.

Finished: Steampunk Computer Table


Well, as much as any project is ever really finished. And with the deadline for Taos Toolbox closing in (I’m leaving for Taos a week from tomorrow) I’ve had to make some serious progress on a number of things. The table is a biggie–if you don’t have a table to write on, not much else matters, especially if it’s a writers’ workshop.

I first mentioned the project here. In truth, it looks pretty much like it does in that photo, but there’s a big difference: The 20″ X 28″ tabletop is now connected (securely) to the legs. In the July 7 photo, the top is simply resting on the legs. In addition, there were labels on some of the fittings, and one galvanized pipe tee that I’ve since changed out for brass. I’ve also added four brass caps on the ends of the legs, to allow adjustment for wobble on uneven surfaces. (Like the tile floor here in my office.)

The photo above shows how the legs are lashed up with pipe fittings. (I hadn’t added the pipe caps to the ends of the legs yet.) Yes, there are two pipe tees that have unused openings. I’m considering using them to mount a pair of thin steampunkish speakers, once I find (or build) a pair of thin steampunkish speakers. In the meantime, I may put two more 6″ brass pipe sections on them and claim that they’re handles. The reason for using tees all the way around is simple: Not all pipe fittings are precisely the same length, even though in a proper tinkertoy system they should be. A simple pipe coupling, although available in brass, is not the same length as a tee. Because there are tees in two of the legs, there need to be tees in all of them, or the legs will not be of the same length. See the photo below, which is just a still life of pipe fittings. At the front edge are a tee and a coupling, and they are not the same length, even though both are threaded for 1/2″ pipe.

I didn’t use four brass unions just to look pretty. (Not at $15 a pop!) The unions allow the tabletop to be removed from the legs, which will make things tamp down a little harder in the back of the 4Runner next Sunday. The flanges are not conventional pipe floor flanges, but TracPipe AutoFlare natural gas flanges. And that wasn’t an accident or simple good looks either, but a consequence of their length. I needed the table surface at 26″ from the floor, and the TracPipe combos plus the union, the tee, and three 6″ brass pipe sections are just about precisely 26″ long. (The caps at the ends of the legs add about 3/8″, which I can deal with.)

The finished item is shown below, with the Aethernet Concentrator tossed in for atmosphere. Much remains to be done before the workshop, but almost all of that is reading and note-taking. My first 10,000 words of Ten Gentle Opportunies has already been submitted. The Concentrator will be along at the workshop, and my updates from Taos will almost certainly go through it.

The tabletop may seem off-center, and it is: I and my legs need to be centered in front of the keyboard, with some mouse-surface to the right. The table is designed to be about as compact as would still be useful, and asymmetry, well, it appeals to me.

Now, how about a fifth flange set into the top side of the table, holding a vertical pipe section to mount the Concentrator about three feet above the table? Hmmmmm…not this week, but the idea is calling to me.