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May, 2017:

A Tappy Kind of Life, Re-Examined

I did a really dumb thing a few days ago: I was hosing off the pool deck, and fell in. With the water at 83 degrees and outside temps at 106 that would ordinarily have been a welcome break…except that my Samsung Note 4 smartphone was in my gym shorts pocket.

I tried hard not to hit the water, and bruised up my left arm a little in the process. However, the phone was underwater for a few seconds (more than five, less than ten) and has not yet come back to life, even after several days in a ziplock bag with all the dessicant packs I could scrounge around the house. This is a serious bummer. I liked that phone. Carol has one too, and in a number of ways, it changed the way we live.

We bought the Note 4s in November 2015, and came to love them almost immediately. They were part of the process of moving from Colorado Springs to Phoenix. We’d had Droid X2 phones since 2011, and used them as…phones. They were good workaday phones, granting that we had a landline in Colorado and used it for talking to relatives or any time a conversation was expected to take longer than a couple of minutes. Although we’d expected to get a landline in Phoenix, a few weeks of using the Note 4s showed them to be so effective that we just didn’t bother. Carol bought a Bluetooth headset for long conversations with her sister, and mostly I just put it on speaker. The fidelity was superb, and there was a lot less packet-loss than with the Droids.

What startled me about the Note 4s was how much else they could do. I’d tried texting on the DroidX, but the screen was too small and my fingers too big. On the phablet-sized, stylus-equipped Note 4, no problem. I had tried reading ebooks on the DroidX, and again, it just wasn’t big enough to be comfortable. I marvel at how well the Note 4 handles the Kindle app. I have a Kindle Paperwhite with a bigger display, but because it’s another slab, I mostly use it at home. If I’m waiting in a doctor’s office or somewhere, the Note 4 serves spectacularly.

Then we started trying some apps. Two that we use a lot are Raindar and Weather Underground. Raindar shows where the rain is, how hard it’s falling, and which way it’s moving. Period. That’s all we wanted, and that’s all we got. Win! Weather Underground is more complicated: It’s a formerly independent weather geek site (founded in 1995) that was bought by The Weather Channel and somehow hasn’t yet been turned into a global warming shill operation. Its magic lies in its architecture, as a network of “hyperlocal” weather stations. The app can determine which one is closest to your house, and when you bring up the app, it will show you data from that station. Phoenix alone has thirty or forty such stations, a couple within a mile of our house. I was a bit surprised at how different the readings were from one station to another, but I tested the closest stations against my own thermometers, and chose the one that was the best match. We use it to find out when to open the windows on summer nights, and when to close them again in the morning. We use Raindar to see when there’s a lull in a thunderstorm long enough to let the Pack out to potty. Weather matters.

After getting stuck in traffic once too often in Denver, I searched for and discovered Waze, which crowdsources data on traffic conditions and lays it all out on a map. It knows (from the phone’s GPS logic) how fast you’re going, and it plots bad traffic in different colors. Users report construction, accidents, vehicles on the shoulder, and speed traps, all of which also appear on the map. We did a lot of driving between here and Colorado Springs from 2015 to 2017, and Waze was surprisingly helpful.

The local classical music station, KBAQ, has an app that will stream their audio if you have an Internet connection. That’s useful. However, what’s even more useful (especially since we listen to KBAQ on a real stereo system when we’re at home) is that they tell you what’s currently playing, so if an unfamiliar piece comes on, I can yank out the phone, tap up the app, and see what it is, following the links on the composers if they’re new to me. I’ve had no better education in classical music since the course I took with Dr. Raymond Wilding-White in 1973.

The Note 4s came with Flipboard, a news aggregator app that I doubt I would have sought out on my own. We don’t have cable TV anymore, and although I’m not a news hound, I generally like to know how close the fires and riots are. Alas, Flipboard seems to emphasize UK news sources, and has an almost inexplicable obsession with celebrity trivia, particularly celebrity women showing off their baby bumps or going topless somewhere. Most of these celebrities are people I’ve never heard of, and even when a genuine celebrity appears, the context is, as often as not, banal. There have been a few reasonable science and tech stories on Flipboard, but mostly it’s catch as catch can. I check it most mornings to make sure that the world still exists. (Given the stuff they post, sometimes it’s a little hard to tell.)

Samsung’s S-Health app does a lot of different things, the most useful of which is to track steps, pedometer-style, and present step data in various reports. It also uses the camera to test blood oxygen levels, but the software is fussy and my cheapo pulsox does the job much better. As a pedometer, though, it’s first-rate.

I like GPS Test, especially since it can tell me my current altitude. It also works as a compass. The SoundHound app is much less useful, and I’m being charitable. I tried and generally dumped a number of games, most of them puzzle games. The screen is a little small for Mah Jongg, given the complexity of the patterns on the tiles. However, Ultimate Jewel (a Bejeweled clone) is a sort of software fidget-spinner that handily gets my mind off of vexatious people and their damfool drama.

I have a flashlight app that’s been useful a time or two. The camera is decent, though it has nothing on my Canon G-16. It’s a reasonable photo viewer, especially with a 128GB Micro SD card inside to hold my photobase. (The lack of an SD slot is primarily what kept us from buying Note 5s.)

However, all that said, the biggest single use that Carol and I put the Note 4s to is voice search. We had voice search on the Droid X2s, but somehow it just didn’t comprehend us as cleanly as the Notes. Now, if we’re sitting around talking about something and an unfamiliar concept or person comes up, one or both of us grabs our phones, taps “Google Voice Search” and speaks the search terms. It’s still a little astonishing how reliably the app understands spoken search terms. Granted, a 5 1/4″ diagonal display is on the small side for doing research, but for quick orientation, well, it’s like nothing else.

Five days since I went swimming with my Note 4, I miss it terribly. This has nothing to do with Facebook or Twitter, which by agreement with myself I only use on my desktop. The strange part of the adventure is that I integrated the Note 4 with my life so slowly that I never fully grasped how important it had become. Some things come at you fast. Others sneak up on you when you aren’t looking. A very few just have this talent of dissolving into the background noise of ordinary life, where you never miss them until they go away. So it was with the Samsung Note 4.

I ordered a new Note 4 from Amazon a few days ago, and it should be here by Monday or before. It’s white, which is a feature, since the two phones Carol and I bought are both black and physically identical. To know which it is, you have to hit the button and parse the wallpaper. Now we can tell from across the great room.

There are rumors that Samsung is preparing a Note 8 for release later this year, with an SD card socket if not a replaceable battery. I’ll give it a fair hearing, but in truth, if it has no strong advantage over the Note 4, I may give it a pass, especially if the rumors are true that it will cost $800. I promised Carol I would no longer skim the pool with a $400 phone in my pocket. An $800 phone? No promise necessary.

Ten Gentle Opportunities in Trade Paperback

10-Gentle-Opportunities-Revision-Final-Adjusted-With Type-500 Wide.jpg

I’ve been promising to do a trade paperback edition of Ten Gentle Opportunities for over a year now. Printed books are always good to have around for promo purposes, but I’ve gotten eight or ten explicit requests for paperbacks since the ebook edition was first released in January 2016. Why disappoint customers?

Buy Ten Gentle Opportunities from the CreateSpace store.

Buy Ten Gentle Opportunities from the Amazon store.

Sorry it took so long, guys.

Anyway. Why two sales links? It’s yet another peculiar kink in the increasingly kink-y world of independent publishing. Simply put: I make significantly more money per sale on books ordered from the CreateSpace store than from the conventional Amazon store. I’ll lay it out for you, though you can calculate it yourself using the CreateSpace royalty calculator, with a detailed explanation of how it all works on their Understanding Royalties page.

The book’s specs are these:

  • Black and white interior
  • 6″ X 9″ trim size
  • 310 pages
  • $12.95 Cover price

Basically, my share of the book’s cover price is the cover price minus the portion that CreateSpace takes. Their share is the sum of three things:

  • The sales channel percentage
  • A fixed per-book charge
  • A per-page charge

The sales channel percentage is basically the retailer’s discount. There are four sales channels available through CreateSpace, each with an associated discount:

  • Amazon US: 40% of cover price
  • Amazon Europe: 40% of cover price
  • The CreateSpace store: 20% of cover price
  • Expanded distribution: 60% of cover price

Expanded distribution is basically retail wholesaling to B&M stores and libraries through distributors like Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and NACSCORP. As you can see, orders coming in from Amazon take twice the amount off the top as orders coming in from the CreateSpace store. I get so little from each expanded distribution sale that I decided not to both with expanded distribution. Sure, it would be cool to see the book on the shelves at bookstores…but the chances of that happening at all are pretty slight.

The fixed per-book charge is a sort of minimum charge for manufacturing the book. For b/w books having 110-828 pages, the fixed charge is $0.85 per book.

The per-page charge is the rest of the manufacturing cost, and depends on page count and whether the interior is b/w or color. For a b/w book in the 110-828 page count range, this charge is $.012 per page; i.e., 1.2 cents per page.

Turning the crank, it comes out like this:

  • $12.95 X 20% = $2.59, calculation of channel discount
  • $12.95 – $2.59 = $10.36, cover price minus channel discount
  • $10.36 – $0.85 = $9.51, minus per-book fixed charge
  • 310 pages X $0.012 = $3.72, calculation of per-page charge
  • $9.51 – $3.72 = $5.79

My share of each sale through the CreateSpace store is $5.72. For a sales through the Amazon store, the channel charge is 40%, or $5.18. With all else being the same, my share would be $12.95 – $5.18 – $0.85 – $3.72 = $3.20. So by ordering through the CreateSpace store, I get $5.72 rather than $3.20.

However….there is a significant gotcha: You have to set up an account with the CreateSpace store. Also, Amazon Prime shipping does not apply to CreateSpace sales. I recognize that these may be show-stoppers for some people. That’s ok; I won’t be annoyed if you order from the Amazon store.

Mostly, I wrote this entry to provide a little insight as to how authors are paid for paperback editions of books offered through CreateSpace. Because I don’t expect to sell a great many copies of the paperback, it’s a matter of no great importance. Like it or not, we’re hurtling toward an ebook future at most of the speed of light. The ebook is $2.99 and it’s delivered Right Damned Now rather than sometime next week. The ebook is selling well (considering I haven’t been pushing it much) and I’m happy with the money I’m making. Even $3.20 per copy is about par for royalties I’ve received on traditionally published technical books, and this is fiction.

If you still like printed books, I’d be honored if you’d buy a copy. And on that note, I’m going back to writing my latest novel. There are worse ways to be retired than this!

Odd Lots

  • A study performed almost fifty years ago has come back into the light, in which half of a reliable (i.e., institutionalized) sample population was fed saturated animal fat, and the other half was fed vegetable oils. After almost five years researchers found that low cholesterol was not heart-healthy. For every observed 30 point drop in cholesterol, overall mortality went up 22%. Step away from the corn oil!
  • Again, not new (from 1998) but intriguing: A study showed that people on a high-fat diet exhibited a better mood than those on a low-fat diet. I’m always in a better mood when things taste better, and fat tastes better than almost anything else you could name.
  • We are slaughtering so many sacred cows these days: A brand-new study shows that only 20-25% of people exhibit BP sensitive to sodium. And not only that: Among the others, the ones who ate the most salt were the ones with the lowest blood pressure.
  • OMG: Cheese is as addictive as crack! Actually, it’s not. And today’s fake science is brought to you by a former vice-president of PETA. Yes, scientists have a constitutional right to vent politicalized nonsense and swear fealty to political parties and ideologies. I have a constitutional right to mark down their credibility if they do.
  • I’ve been saying for a long time that counting calories is worthless, based on research that goes back almost sixty years. If The Atlantic piles on, I suspect the debate is over.
  • For her eighth birthday recently, I gave my niece Julie three books on the visual programming language Scratch. Julie, who, when her mother told her she was too young for roller skates, tried to make her own out of Lego. I’m not sure what she’ll do with it…but trust me, she’ll think of something. (Thanks to Joel Damond for the link.)
  • Due to an intriguing gadget called an isotope ratio mass spectrometer, we can say with pretty reasonable confidence that human beings were top-of-the-food-pyramid carnivores long before we ever domesticated plants. Yes, it’s a long-form piece. Read The Whole Thing.
  • Look at the US Drought Monitor. I remember when much of California and Nebraska were dark brown. If this be climate change, let us make the most of it.
  • This may be funnier if you’re deep into RPGs, but I found it pretty funny nonetheless. I suspect that I dwell somewhere in the Diverse Alliance of Nice Guys. And hey, that’s where Space Vegas is.
  • Beware the Bambie Apocalypse! (Thanks to Esther Schindler for the link.)

Scary Mary and the Bicameral Mind

Well, the bookshelves got themseves full, and I still had three boxes to empty. So once again (I don’t know how many times I’ve done this!) I emptied piles of books onto the floor and flipped through them, in part for charge slips used as bookmarks, and in part to decide what books just had to go. Found a lot of charge slips, business cards, promo bookmarks, and other odd (flat) things tucked between the pages, including a small piece of brass shim stock. I built a pile of discards that turned out to be bigger than I expected.

One thing that went were my Scary Mary books.

Twenty years ago, I was very interested in Marian apparitions, and did some significant research. There’s a lot more to Marian apparitions than Fatima and Lourdes. The Roman Catholic Church approves only a tiny handful of apparitions. The rest don’t get a lot of press, and for good reason: The bulk of them are batshit nuts. The reason I was so interested is pretty simple: Perhaps the most deranged of all Marian phenomena occurred in Necedah, the tiny Wisconsin town where my mother grew up. Although she moved from Wisconsin to Chicago after WWII, she used to go to a shrine in Necedah (not far from Mauston and the Wisconsin Dells) light candles, and pray. She bought the full set of books detailing the Blessed Mother’s conversations with a woman named Mary Ann Van Hoof that began in 1950. As best I know she never read them. (My mother wasn’t a voracious reader like my father.) That’s a good thing. There was enough heartbreak in her life without her having to face the fact that Mary Ann was obviously insane and increasingly under the influence of a very shady John Bircher type named Henry Swan. From standard exhortations to pray the rosary and live a moral, Christ-centered life, the messages became ever more reactionary and eventually hateful. Some were innocuously crazy; Mary Ann dutifully reported the Blessed Mother’s warnings against miniature Soviet submarines sneaking up the St. Lawrence river. But many of her later messages described a worldwide conspiracy of Jews (whom she called “yids”) rooted in the United Nations and the Baha’i Temple in Chicago. Oh, and the Russians were planning all sorts of attacks, most of them sneaky things like poisoning food, water, and farm animals.

The local Roman Catholic bishop condemned the apparitions in 1955, and soon after issued interdicts against Mary Ann and her followers. Still, Mary Ann stayed the course, and continued writing down Mary’s messages (with plenty of help from Henry Swan) until her death in 1984.

The first thing I learned about Marian apparitions is that the Lady gets around: There have been lots and lots of them, most occurring in the midlate 20th Century. This is the best list of apparitions I’ve found. (There was even one here in Scottsdale in 1988.) For every apparition approved by the Church as acceptable private revelation, there are probably fifty either ignored, or (as in Necedah) actively condemned. The second thing I learned is that they’re almost always warnings of dire things to come if we don’t straighten up our acts. The third thing I learned is that the craziness was not limited to Necedah, though Henry Swan did his best to make it a cultural trope. The late and lamented (but still visible) did a wry article on the topic in 2001, highlighting the Blessed Mother’s ongoing battle against communism. The apocalyticism got utterly over-the-top at some point, with warnings against “three days of darkness” during which devils would be released from hell to scratch at our doors in an effort to steal our souls.

At that point, I figured I knew all that I cared to know, and the Scary Mary books went back on the shelves, where they remained, mostly untouched, until we packed our Colorado Springs house in 2015.

So what’s going on here? There’s a very good book on the subject by an objective outsider: Encountering Mary by Sandra L. Zimdars-Swartz . Most of her discussion centers on approved apparitions, but she does touch on the crazy stuff, including Necedah. She takes a sociological approach, is very careful not to be judgemental, and never implies that we might be dealing with psychopathology here, even in the crazy phenomena like Necedah.

I won’t be as courteous. I’m pretty sure we’re dealing with the mechanisms of charismatic religion here, which can be fine until a certain line is crossed. I have a theory about the crazy ones that as best I know is original to me: Visionaries like poor Mary Ann Van Hoof are indeed high-functioning schizophrenics, but more than that, are relics of an age described by Julian Jaynes back in the 1970s as the age of the “bicameral mind.” Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousnes in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is a slog but still worth reading.

It’s complicated (what isn’t?) but Jaynes’ theory is that until around 3000 BC, human minds worked differently than they do today. The left brain was somewhat of a robot, with little or no sense of itself, and the right brain was where everything important happened. The right brain gave the left brain orders that took the form of voices heard in the left brain’s speech centers. Primitive humans first thought of the voices as those of their deceased relatives, and later as disembodied gods. In a sense, Jaynes is claiming that humans evolved as schizophrenics with a much thinner wall between the two hemispheres of the brain. At some point, the left brain became capable of introspection, allowing it to take the initiative on issues relating to survival, and the wall between the hemispheres became a lot less permeable. According to Jaynes, ego trumped schiophrenia in the survival olympics, and the bicameral mind was quickly bred out of the human creature.

I won’t summarize his arguments, which I don’t entirely accept. I’m looking at it as a potential gimmick in my fiction, which is the primary reason I read in the category I call “weirdness.” However, the similarity of Jaynes’ bicameral mind concept and what happens in many ecstatic visions (in Christianity and other religions) struck me. We still have schizophrenics among us, and we may have individuals where schizophrenia lurks just beneath the surface, waiting for a high-stress event to crack a hole in the hemispheric barrier and let the voices come through again. The key is that Marian apparitions are almost always crisis-oriented. Mary never just drops in to say “Hi guys, what’s going on?” In a Marian context, the crises are almost always moral and sometimes ritual, warning against the consequences of abandoning traditional beliefs and/or sacramental worship. The occasional gonzo apparitions (like Necedah and another at Bayside, NY) plunge headfirst into reactionary secular politics as well. A threat to the visionary’s deepest beliefs can trigger apocalyptic warnings through voices that the visionary interprets as Mary, Jesus, or some other holy person.

Whether all or even the greater part of Jaynes’ theory is correct, it’s pretty likely that there are mechanisms in the brain that we have evolved away from, and these “voices of the gods” may be one of them. The right brain is a powerful engine, and it doesn’t have much in the line of communication channels to the left hemisphere right now. Writing can be one of them. I’m what they call a “pantser” on the fiction side. In fact, I’m a “gateway writer,” meaning that I write whole complicated scenes without a single bit of planning aforethought. I don’t outline my novels. I vomit them onto disk, jumbled in spots but mostly whole. How does that even work?

And what else could we do if we could crack that valve a little wider?

My gut (which is in fact my right brain) whispers, “Nothing good. The left brain evolved to protect the right brain from itself. Evolution knew what it was doing. Not all of those voices were gods.”