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Review: Where Is Everybody? by Stephen Webb

41oxPnAPxHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI have a lot of books. In general, when I buy (or somehow acquire) a book I read it right away. I realized a few weeks ago that although my sister gave me a copy of Ingathering by Zenna Henderson some years back, it got shelved without being read. My bad. My review is in my entry for 2/9/2021.

So I went hunting for other books in this situation. The Principle of Mediocrity applies here: If there was one unread book on my shelves, there will probably be others. It didn’t take long to find one: Where Is Everybody? by Stephen Webb. It’s not a new book. It was published in 2002, and sent to me for review in 2003 by an editor at Copernicus Books, Paul Farrell. 2002 was not a good year for me, for reasons you know already. In a way, it remains the annus horribilis of my life. In 2003 we moved away from Arizona to get away from constant reminders of the horribilis. (For newcomers: 2002 was the year my publishing company here in Arizona crashed and burned, through no fault of my own. Long story.) So I guess it’s unsurprising that the book went onto the shelves unread. In fact, it probably went straight into a box. I (finally) finished it an hour or so ago.

As an SF writer, it’s a topic I have a keen interest in: aliens, and the cogent question asked by physicist Enrico Fermi way back in 1944: If there is life elsewhere in the universe, why haven’t we encountered evidence of it yet?

Good question. A lot of really smart people have grappled with it, but the (obvious) spoiler is that we don’t know. (Yet.) Where Is Everybody? is a systematic presentation of fifty proposed explanations for why we’ve not encountered the Galactic Confederation. The author gives each a number and takes us through them in order, explaining why none of them really answers Fermi’s question. For example, Solution 20 is “We Have Not Listened Long Enough.” There’s a lot of Universe, and we’ve only been listening to “waterhole” frequencies for an insignificant amount of time, compared to the lifetime of our galaxy. Solution 44 is “The Prokaryote-Eukaryote Transition Is Rare.” That was a new one for me (biology is not my field) and involves the jump between primordial single-celled life and the more complex form of single-celled life that eventually evolved into multicellular organisms. We can’t explain how it happened, but somehow it did. Was it a fluke? Don’t know.

Stephen Webb separates the 50 proposed explanations of the Fermi Question into three broad groups: 1. They Are Already Here. 2. They Exist But Have Not Yet Communicated. And 3. They Do Not Exist. A lot of the issues are things I had read about elsewhere. A surprising number were new to me. Along the way, he talks about the Drake Equation and how it relates to the probability of finding intelligent life beyond Earth. In a sense, most of the issues discussed in the book either represent existing terms of the Drake Equation, or could be considered new ones.

All the usual explanations are taken up: berserkers, species suicide here on Earth, the Rare Earth hypothesis (which is actually taken up in several parts, each with its own number and section in the book) gamma ray bursters, asteroid bombardment, giant planets in the wrong places, lack of a Moon, lack of plate tectonics in most rocky planets, and so on.

A few of the proposed solutions may strike some as outre. Solution 7 is “The Planetarium Hypothesis,” which proposes that we are living in a simulated universe, with the superhuman aliens behind the scenes, pulling the levers and observing us. That’s an interesting one because it can be disproven, using what we know about the data and energy requirements of a simulation as good as our reality suggests. Solution 8 is “God Exists,” and He set things up just right for the universe to evolve us–and perhaps created an infinitude of other universes either sterile or fine-tuned to benefit other intelligent life. I’m reminded of Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 pseudo-novel Star Maker, in which an unthinkably powerful being creates a series of universes, each more “mature” than the last. (I found the book largely impenetrable when I read it at 17. It may be worth another look 51 years later. If nothing else, I’ve developed patience in the interim.)

Webb’s writing is refreshingly clear and easygoing. He’s a natural explainer, in the same way that Isaac Asimov was. He cites a lot of researchers and their research as he explains each topic, and there is a fat section of references and pointers to further readings at the back of the book. I came away from it feeling satisfied with the time I spent, and better still, that I learned something–a lot of somethings, in fact–along the way.

Webb does not intend to prove (or disprove) the existemce of Extrarrestial Civilizations (ETCs). The point of the book (or the joker in the deck, if you’re a fervent believer in ETCs) is that we do not have anything close to enough data to form a conclusion. He does confirm the feeling I had as he explained one possible solution after another: There are a lot of very difficult hurdles between a sterile planet and a starfaring civilization. By the end, I felt that he had added a good fifteen or twenty new terms to the Drake Equation. If those new terms are as difficult as our research suggests, yes, we are indeed an exceedingly unlikely Cosmic Fluke, and probably alone in the universe.

This doesn’t bother me, even as a science fiction writer. When I was a teen and for a few years afterward, I wrote stories about aliens. However, I’ve judged only two of them good enough to put before the public: Firejammer and “Born Again, With Water.” My conclusion is mostly this: If intelligent alien life exists elsewhere in the universe and we come upon them, we may not have much to talk about. We may not be able to talk to them at all. Shared experience, even the shared experience of being born into an orderly and comprehensible universe, may be impossible across the gulf to an alien mind.

That is, unless you count my Metaspace Saga, in which aliens create our universe as a way of obtaining a better random-number generator. Except–they’re not really aliens. No more spoilers. I’m working on it. There are some hints in The Cunning Blood. The rest will come out eventually.

In the meantime, I powerfully recommend Stephen Webb’s book. What I didn’t notice until I went up to schnarf the book’s cover image for this entry is that he published a second edition in 2015–and now he’s got seventy-five proposed solutions to tackle. I’ll pick that one up eventually. In the meantime, I’m scanning my shelves for other gems that may have been hiding from me. They’re in there somewhere. Like I said, I have a lot of books.

Review: Ingathering by Zenna Henderson

ingathering.jpgSome years ago, my sister gave me a copy of the NESFA Press hardcover edition of Ingathering, a collection of all of Zenna Henderson’s stories of The People, including a story timeline tying them together into a loose history. It came to me during a turbulent period of my life, and for some reason (Losing my publishing company? Moving to Colorado? Retirement? Moving back?) I never just sat down and read it. For that I apologize to her. I just finished it this afternoon. It was well worth the time and effort.

The stories are old; some were published the year I was born. (Zenna was born in 1917 and died in 1983.) I read many but not all of them before. I still have the MMPBs I bought in high school and college, and I’m glad I don’t have to read them again. My new reading glasses won’t be in for a week or two, and these old eyes just can’t process such small print by themselves anymore, quite apart from the fact that simply turning the now-yellowed pages would probably destroy the books.

If you’ve never heard of Henderson’s People, here’s the quick summary: In 1890, six starships full of the inhabitants of a planet they simply call The Home flee the planet, which is inexplicably disintegrating from no stated cause. One of these starships attempts a landing on Earth and miscalculates re-entry. An unstated number of People leave the big ship in lifeboats, and (some) land successfully in various places on Earth. The big ship crashes in (I think) the American West, still in 1890. The People Saga (my coinage) is about how the People struggle within a culture that treats them with suspicion and burns some as witches. For the People have what they call Signs and Persuasions, basically (to use that fine old ’50s term) psi powers. No complete catalog is given, but there are Sorters (intuitive psychiatrists), Motivers (telekinetics), Seers (prophets), Lifters (self-telekinetics), and a fair number of others, including one, called The Francher Kid, who can make musical instruments play themselves. All are telepathic. Over the years (the timeline runs from 1890 to 1970) the lifeboat refugees who survived the landing gradually find one another, and with greater or lesser success melt into human society.

The People are physically indistinguishable from us Earthlings, close enough to interbreed. Although not Christian, they worship a trinitarian God whom they call The Name, The Power, and The Presence. They are generous, kind, enthusiastic, helpful, and for the most part what Earthlings should be but aren’t. Friendship matters to them, and as you’ve heard me say many times, friendship is the cornerstone of the human spirit.

The People stories have been criticized as mawkish, corny, sentimental, maudlin, and repetitive. Many are tear-jerkers. Nearly all are surprisingly moving, especially if you’ve purged the cowardice some call cynicism from your life. (I have.) I put the box of Kleenex that lives on my desk on the table next to my reading chair. Yes, I needed it. A few of them made me want to stand up and cheer. That’s one reason I read them all again, after almost fifty years. There are no downer endings. Every single one is upbeat and affirming. And boy, considering the shitshow we’re all still in the middle of, I needed that.

Many of the stories are told from the viewpoint of one-room schoolhouse teachers in what is almost certainly Arizona, where Zenna Henderson was born, lived, wrote, and died. That’s what she was. Having been a teacher, she wrote from the heart about the very, very human business of learning. And not just numbers or words, but what’s right and what’s wrong, coming to know and growing into your own “magic powers,” how we are all very much in this together, and how together we can make it all work.

I’m still a little surprised that the only TV/cinema treatment of the People is a now mostly forgotten 1972 made-for-TV movie starring William Shatner and Kim Darby. (You can watch it on YouTube, if you can stand resolution that low.) I saw it in 1972 and enjoyed it. If anything deserves a 2021 reboot, The People Saga does.

I have a few reservations about the People Saga:

  • The People are just too damned perfect. Ok, there are a couple of stories showing members of the People acting selfishly, but for the most part, damn, if you need a hand they’ll fly half their settlement over to get you through a crisis.
  • Hard SF guy that I am, I wanted to know how they were so genetically identical to us that we could interbreed. Henderson shows no lack of imagination. It could be that some ancient godlike race scattered humans across the galaxy and let them grow into their powers. We chose machinery. The People chose…themselves. She could have given us a quick paragraph clarifying the matter.
  • Similarly, planets don’t just alluvasudden fall apart. There’s a whole well-known catalog of possible cosmic catastrophes. I wanted to know which one prompted the People’s star-crossed star crossing to Earth. Granted, that’s just me. Henderson provides some surreal hints that The People had forgotten too much about science and technology, and that The Power had to force them to remember what they’d lost, even if it meant scragging their planet and sending them across the galaxy to live among primitives who’d just as soon kill you as look at you.
  • Is FTL one of their psi powers? Damn, if I could only have one, that’d be the one. But there’s no indication of how their starships trumped Einstein.
  • The stories get a little repetitive at times. This is what worries me about my own Drumlins Saga. I don’t want the stories to plow the same field over and over. On the flipside, even when she tells the same story for the seventh time, it’s still affirming and still makes me reach for the Kleenex. She knew what she was doing, and was damned good at it.

I grinned to see this in Zenna’s Wikipedia bio: She was buried in Benson, Arizona.

Anything else I might say would include spoilers. I loved the book, and will read it again if life ever gets a little too depressing. If you need a mood-lift and don’t mind reaching for the Kleenex when necessary, well, here it is. Highly recommended.

A Year and Change on APAP

A year ago this past May, one of my doctors suggested that my lack of energy might be due to sleep apnea. Carol verified this; she has heard me stop breathing numerous times while lying beside me in bed. The doc prescribed an at-home “headband” sleep study, which at least verified his suspicion of apnea. The device (which was just that: a headband with electrodes) recorded an AHI of 33. Basically, I would stop breathing 33 times an hour. This seemed excessive and still does, for reasons I’ll explain a little later. But the next step was obvious: He handed me a prescription for an APAP machine. “APAP” is an adjustable pressure CPAP. The machine senses your breathing, and sends enough air through the hose to keep you breathing, no more.

I shopped around online, and got an NOS (new, old stock) ResMed S10 Auto. It was half the price of a new machine, even though it was still sealed in its original packaging. I bought a couple of different masks, and gave them all a good shot.

At first it made me nuts. I have never been a strong sleeper, and having this thing strapped to my face all night kept me awake. The full-face mask that most people use was a non-starter. I used a few other types of mask, and finally found that I could actually sleep a little using a “nasal pillows” mask, which has these two little soft silicone pads on a single strap that goes behind your head. The two pads each has a tube protruding from the middle, and those tubes go into your nostrils, while the soft pads keeps a good seal. Ok, a reasonably good seal. I still have problems with leaks around the edges of the pads, but that doesn’t negate the machine’s effectiveness.

It still kept me awake. So the doc put me on a new sleeping pill called Belsomra (Suvorexant) which, rather than sedating you, helps neutralize stimuli that prevent you from sleeping–like an APAP mask. And damn, it worked! I slept better than I had in a long time, with no interruptions but my two canonical bathroom breaks.

With the machine in operation, I was throwing just a few “events” every night. There are several kinds, and I don’t have the space to describe them all here. My personal favorite is hypopnea, which is shallow breathing, not airway obstruction. The doc said it doesn’t interrupt sleep. Some of the others I’m still not sure I understand, like Cheyne-Stokes Respiration; but that’s ok, as I think I’ve had it exactly once in thirteen months.

The S10 records everything it senses during the night on an SD card. You can pop the card out and read it any time. My correspondent TRX put me on to a free app called Sleepyhead, which takes the data from the card and throws up all kinds of graphs for Windows, Mac, and Linux. The damned thing literally graphs the shape of every single breath you take. You can see when you stop breathing, along with the following spike in pressure to open your airway again.

Ok. Now it gets a little odd, and a little disappointing. For the first six months I recorded AHIs of .5 to 7, which isn’t bad, especially compared to where I was starting from. The problem is, I still felt the profound lack of energy that’s been dogging me now for several years. I felt a little better, but I wonder if that was just the sleeping pill keeping me from reacting to dogs yipping in their sleep chasing archons in the akasha, or the drip system cranking up in the middle of the night. I stopped using the machine for a week. I didn’t feel any worse, nor better.

I’m still using it. I’ve worked out the optimal sleeping position through a year of trial-and-error: On my right side, with my head on a firm pillow, leaning back just a little to keep the mask from smooshing off my face due to pressure from the pillow. The data the S10 gives me showed me a few significant things: My AHI goes through the roof when I sleep on my back; something like 7-10. Oddly (and so far inexplicably) my AHI also goes up sharply when I sleep on my left side. Nobody can tell me why. So I sleep on my right side. I have to prop my right knee on a second pillow, but it works.

And now it gets more interesting still: I had been slowly putting on some weight for a year or two. So in February I cut my carb intake to as close to zero as I could manage, without starving myself. (Starving yourself doesn’t work. Really. What you might lose, you then gain back after the diet stops, and then some.) My weight went down from 163 to 148-150. It took a couple of months of this for me to notice, but eventually I saw it: As I lost weight, my AHI imploded. At the end of March I had my first perfect night: The S10 recorded no events at all, nothing. As spring continued, I saw my record improve even more: I started having perfect nights regularly, and then two or three (and once, four) in a row.

Carol mentioned something over breakfast one morning: I had lost weight in my face and my neck. I’ve never been seriously overweight, but I’ll be 67 in a week or so, and I’m trying to keep my A1C down to avoid Type 2. I was actually trying to eliminate visceral fat around my waist as much as possible. I didn’t even think I had fat in my face to lose.

I still haven’t regained my energy (which is one reason you don’t see as many Contra entries as you used to; I’m pouring most of what energy I have now into my fiction) and that problem remains unsolved. Maybe I’m just old. I don’t know. Coffee helps some. Beyond that, I’m out of things to try.

My only remaining theory is this: That headband sleep study was bogus. I suspect it was interpreting me jerking around in my sleep as apnea events–I’m an “active” sleeper and always have been. So although I did have sleep apnea, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the headband claimed. That said, I think the S10 has improved the quality of my sleep, which is beneficial in many ways beyond personal energy. This is why I continue to use it. My point here is that quality of sleep is not behind my energy deficit.

I’m still trying to figure that out. In the meantime, if you think you have apnea (spousal reports are good, and even a bad sleep study will give you some broad hints) I recommend two things:

1. Get yourself a recording APAP machine like the ResMed S10. Download Sleepyhead and watch your data, daily if possible. Development on the app has stopped, but it’s still available and works fine. You will learn a lot about how your sleeping position (and weight) affect your breathing.

2. Lose weight. This is good for lots of reasons (Type 2 being most important) but I’m pretty sure at this point that facial and neck fat are huge amplifiers for a tendency to apnea.

I’ve gone on long enough here for this busy morning, but if what I’ve experienced this past year will help my readers, it’s well worth it. Good luck. Cut carbs. Animal fat will not hurt you. (Certain vegetable oils will.) Sleep as much and as well as you can, even if it takes a machine to help you get there. Even (Gasp! The horror!) go to bed at 9 PM if that’s what it takes to get eight hours in before you have to go back to work or school. And pills; Belsomra is something entirely new in the human pharma cabinet. It is utterly unlike the nenzos or Z-drugs. Look into it if you have trouble sleeping.

More as I learn it. Let me know how you do, if you happen to be on this path as well.

Bouncing from Book to Book

Whoa. I’m about to do something I’ve never done before–and yes, I have drunk both whisky and black coffee–that makes me a hair uncomfortable: I’m about to recommend a book I haven’t even finished yet. And therby hangs a tale.

Back in 1991 or 1992, I noticed that a new Niven/Pournelle book had come out. In casual conversation, a friend of mine (now deceased) told me it was a waste of time and money and not to bother. The book? Fallen Angels, by Niven, Pournelle, and Mike Flynn. Even though I trusted his judgment, I was curious. I was close to a Niven completist at that point, and he remains up in my top three favorite SF authors of all time. Alas, in 1991, I was doing long, long days trying to establish a profitable publishing company, and in truth I wasn’t reading a lot of anything that didn’t directly relate to PC Techniques Magazine. So I passed on Fallen Angels. I’ve since passed on some of the later Ringworld books, and most of the Man-Kzin War saga. Not a completist anymore, I guess. The older I get, the more I ration my time and attention to things that will prove worthwhile.

Then I remembered a couple of weeks ago that Glenn Reynolds always cites Fallen Angels when he aggregates an article suggesting that the world has begun to chill. The core problem in Fallen Angels is that the Earth has begun a new ice age in the near future. An ice age!

Cool!

I’ve always been interested in ice ages. Growing up in Chicago sometimes does that to people. I still lived in Chicago during the three blistering winters of 1977, 1978, and 1979. (And when I left, I went right to Rochester, NY, heh. No relief.) When I was a kid I had a plastic model skeleton of a mastodon. And I knew what a moraine was, having camped in Kettle Moraine State Park as a boy scout.

Six bucks on Kindle? Click. Sold! (The cover image, by the way, is gorgeous.) I didn’t start reading it right away, and the hideous conversion to ebook format made me nuts enough to order a paper copy before continuing. Typos, OCR errors, ugly layout, uggh. Nonetheless, I finished it.

No, that’s not the book I’m recommending. I didn’t hate Fallen Angels, but I didn’t love it. Much of the book consists of one SF fan in-joke after another. That was the intent, but self-referential art has always turned me off. The only one missing was lime jello, and it’s entirely possible that by then I had tuned out the fangab enough that it slipped passed me. It’s readable enough to finish, and if you were a fan in the ’70s and ’80s, you’ll recognize some of the people, or maybe even yourself.

No, what happened while reading Fallen Angels is that the book references another book, this time one that I’d never heard of before: The Sixth Winter, by Douglas Orgill and John Gribbin. Orgill was new to me. Gribbin is a British astrophysicist who has written a number of very good popular science books, my favorite of which being In Search of Shroedinger’s Cat. The Sixth Winter was published in 1979, and was about the emergence of a new ice age. (Gosh! Where did they ever get that idea?!!?!?) Four bucks on Kindle? Click. Sold! And just in case, I ordered a hardcover, because used hardcovers could be had for as little as $3.66.

As I write this, the hardcover is still on order. That was certainly a good bet, because the conversion to ebook format was every bit as bad as that of Fallen Angels. I started reading the crappy ebook edition…and couldn’t put it down. Wow. In Fallen Angels, the new Ice Age was backdrop at best. In The Sixth Winter, it’s the main attraction.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the book, since it’s full of clever little twists and turns, but I will say that it has something in common with the Carl & Jerry books: It tries to explain the science that it presents, more than you’d generally get away with in a typical SF adventure novel. I’ll present a hunch: Orgill wrote the fiction, and Gribbon wrote the science. I found it remarkable how such a book grabbed my attention. With the caution (again) that I have a keen interest in ice ages, I recommend it. It is not great fiction. But it is extremely vivid in its descriptions, and there are (fictional) ideas and (granted, dated) science that I’m much enjoying. So there! I did it! I recommended a book that I’m not quite halfway through. Make of it what you will. Sneaky tip: Buy a paper copy. You’ll grind your teeth less over OCR errors, which are legion. “Seat” becomes “scat.” Ouch.

Now hold on. The story isn’t over yet. Partway into The Sixth Winter, the book cites yet another book: Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate Since the Year 1000, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. (1971.) This is a nonfiction book. There is no ebook edition. (I was slightly relieved to learn that.) Paperbacks from $8.93. Why not? Click. Sold! I don’t have it yet, but it includes some contemporary accounts of the Little Ice Age, which I consider to be part of the Ice Age concept and am much looking forward to reading.

Why this sudden interest in ice ages? It’s not sudden; it’s always been there. But I’ll tip my hand just a little bit: I’m heading into the downwind leg of my current work-in-progress, Dreamhealer. Next up (this time fersure, Amy!) is The Molten Flesh. I’ve struggled with the sequel to The Cunning Blood for a long time. I’ve got a nanotech intelligence, an interesting heavy, and plenty of ideas to toss in the pot. The backdrop is still what it was in The Cunning Blood: Canada rules a half-depopulated Earth with an iron hand. The US is still a province under direct Canadian control. The question that arises is this: After being in complete control of the planet for well over a hundred years, what could possibly get Canada’s attention?

Heh. Captain Obvious signing off for now…

Cheap Machines: The HP/Compaq dc7900

Front View On Steampunk Table - 500 Wide.jpg

Back in the early oughts, I saw my first ultra-small form factor (USFF) PCs at our doctor’s office. The machines were Dell Optiplex SX270s, and they were little marvels: Quiet, fast, easy to field-strip and very reliable. (There was a certain widespread problem with bad electrolytic capacitors in that era, and I ran into a couple of SX270s and Samsung monitors containing said bad caps.) They were P4s running XP, and Carol used one successfully as her main machine for a number of years. We donated several to our church’s office, which was pretty full and rather tight, space-wise. Nobody had any trouble with them. Even in 2007, they could be had for $200 or less, depending on what they had in them in terms of RAM and HD.

The SX270s were 2001-era machines, and I’ve long since gotten rid of them. I had a couple of slightly later models, including the SX280 and GX620. I took the 620 to the Taos Toolbox SF workshop in the summer of 2011, along with my steampunk computer table and my Aethernet Concentrator, as Jim Strickland dubbed it. It mounted behind the monitor, and while that made it a little tricky to plug in thumb drives, it made very good use of what small space the table offered.

The steampunk computer table is still in my office, and if I ever go to another live-in workshop again, I’ll take it with me. The GX620 ran Win7 badly, and has been gone for several years now. I need a newer machine to go on the table. Notice I didn’t say a “new” machine. In fact, I was a little curious as to how cheap a machine I could get on eBay that would do the job (office apps) and mount to the dual arm monitor stand that I have clamped to the table. That meant a machine with VESA holes, ideally. Such exist; I had seen them years ago.

It didn’t take long to find such a machine: The HP/Compaq dc7900 USFF. At 10″ X 10″ X 2.75″ it’s a little smaller than the SX270. And the price, hokey smoke! I bought one for $37. Now, that didn’t include a hard drive, but I have a box full of empty SATA hard drives. It came with a DVD-RW drive (and LightScribe, at that, heh) 4GB RAM, and an outboard 135W power supply. The CPU is a 2.5 GHz dual-core Pentium E5200.

Cropped Front View dc7900 - 500 Wide.jpg

I installed Win7 on it, and boom! It just worked. It identified the Dell E228WFP monitor I had attached to the monitor stand and adjusted its resolution to match. I installed enough software to test it but no more than that; like I said, I don’t need it right now and it was mostly a research project and a bit of a stunt, to see how much machine I could buy online for how little money.

Below is a side view of the setup. I used four M4-10 screws to mount it to the monitor stand (VESA is a metric standard) and twisted the arm around until the dc7900 was level with the top edge of the monitor.

Side View - 500 Wide.jpg

Internally, the machine is uncrowded, with two small and almost silent fans to pull air past the CPU heatsink and out of the machine generally. It has eight USB ports, plus both PS/2 keyboard and mouse DIN connectors.

Interior Closeup - 500 wide.jpg

The hard drive is mounted underneath the optical drive, but both come out very quickly without any screwdriver involvement. The hard drive is screwed into a little spring-loaded caddy that snaps into place and mates the SATA connectors firmly, with a little constant spring pressure to keep the drive from walking out of electrical connection.

I’ve only been messing with it for a few days, but so far it’s been trouble-free and able to do anything I could throw at it. No, it’s not as fast as my quadcore. I won’t be doing any gaming or video editing on it. Word processing and email don’t take a lot of cycles. Web browsers are wildcards in that regard, but so far it’s been able to render YouTube videos without any stutter or artifacts.

If you need a physically small machine for ordinary office work, I recommend it. And hey, for $37 plus a junkbox SATA HDD and an OEM copy of Win7, I’d say it’s hard to beat.

Review: Brass and Steel: Inferno

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It’s 1895. Nineteen hundred pounds of pure silver bound for the Federal Mint has vanished. The paper trail is airtight, but the silver is gone. US Marshal Dante Blackmore is put on the case. He travels by airship to Perdition, Nevada, where the silver was mined and smelted. His orders are to help the local sheriff find the silver, but the sheriff is inexplicably hostile, and the town just smells…wrong.

It’s 1895, but it’s not our 1895. In this alternate timeline, the midlate 19th Century was shaped by a war against a peculiar technology that appeared to come out of nowhere: self-assembling subterranean factories called nodes, factories powered by steam and occult force, factories that could think, turning out fake human beings to act as soldiers in a battle for the Earth itself. The imposter humans are so convincing that they’re called doppelgangers, or (colloquially) dopes. They’re convincing mostly because they were once living humans, processed into steampunk cyborgs who are neither truly alive nor dead. They are, however, immensely strong and extremely durable, steel bones and nanotech goo hidden inside human flesh, powered by a cold-fusion boiler. Their minds are enslaved by what might be called mental force or black magic, connecting them back to intelligences that have never been clearly identified. They are deadly, and Earth’s best took years to root out the nodes and destroy them, with enormous casualties. Little by little over the subsequent decades, Earth’s best minds began reverse-engineering the technology and using some of its mechanisms to advance human progress. There are bitter arguments about whether this is actually a good idea, and rumors of secret US government repositories where the strangest of this strange collection are hidden, deemed too powerful and dangerous to see the light of day.

Dante Blackmore knows all this with bitter clarity, he who fought the nodes and their armies of steam-powered zombies during his stint in the US Cavalry. After all, he crawled into a Node, blew it sky-high, and then crawled out again, alive.

Mostly.


To me, the very best part about indie publishing is that it allows authors to break out of genre categories dictated by the needs of physical bookstore shelving. I shopped Ten Gentle Opportunities to traditional publishers for three years before going out on my own. I described what I was doing in great detail, but none of the editors I spoke to seemed to understand the concept. Furthermore, not one of them was willing to even look at a sample chapter. It was infuriating.

Ancient history. I’ve now made as much (or a little more) from TGO as I would have with a typical first-novel contract. And that with little time or energy to promote it as it should be promoted. I consider the novel a success. Better still, I see other writers in my circle doing the same thing: bending genres to their own needs, indie publishing their stories, and making money without chaining themselves to what may be a doomed business model.

Jim Strickland is one of these. Brass and Steel: Inferno is not his first novel (his third, in fact) but it is the first to be completely free of those sorts of constraints. The story is what I call hard fantasy. I first encountered hard fantasy in Larry Niven’s Warlock stories from the ’70s, which focus on an internally consistent system of magic treating magic as a form of stored energy that may be consumed and eventually depleted, like a seam of coal. Decades later, hard fantasy is most visible in the work of Larry Correia, especially his Hard Magic / Spellbound / Warbound trilogy. This is magic as alternative or extended physics, with detailed laws and limitations that keep it from becoming arbitrarily (and boringly) omnipotent. (Brian Niemeier does much the same thing in his Soul Cycle books, as I’ll get back to in a future entry.)

Jim’s system of magic is consistent and detailed enough that it might as well be considered technology from top to bottom, in a sort of flipside of Clarke’s Third Law. The doppelgangers are a new thing in the realm of SFnal ideas, as best I can tell, which is one reason I like the book so much. He throws in lots of little gems on the side, like an electromechanical implementation of UUCP, complete with bang paths. And dope-tech derived crab suits, hoo-boy. As tense and tight as it is, the tale delivers a marvelous mayhem-filled action climax that I found myself envying.

The setting and descriptions are vivid and beautifully imagined. I got the sense that I would be flossing bits of Perdition out of my teeth every night; “gritty” doesn’t quite cover it. The character arc is very well done, and revolves around a pair of extremely strange sisters who really know how to get under Dante Blackmore’s skin. And then there’s this…cat. The reveal is gradual and subtle. I didn’t solve the mystery before I was supposed to. Saying a whole lot more would require getting into some serious spoilers, so I’ll stop now.

As I hinted above, genres and categories fail us here. Brass and Steel: Inferno is a steampunk weird western with a certain amount of horror. Is it a zombie story? Depends on your definition of “zombie,” and if by the term you mean things like The Walking Dead, no and hell no. I guarantee you, it’s unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. $2.99 on Kindle. Paperback $16.95.

Highly recommended.

All the Myriad Waze

Several weeks ago, Carol and I got stuck in traffic on I-25 on the south end of Denver. We were trying to get home to Colorado Springs, and traffic was at a standstill. We didn’t know where the problem was, nor how to get around it. So we took most of an hour to get a couple of miles. The next day I tracked down a fuzzy memory of a mobile app that maps traffic congestion using crowdsourced reports from app users. It only took a minute to find Waze. I installed it on my phone, and Carol and I have been playing with it ever since.

We don’t punch a clock anymore and have no commute, but whenever we have to go across town (which for Colorado Springs is about fifteen miles tops) we fire up Waze and look at the prospective route. It’s definitely saved us some stop-and-go time, especially on I-25, which is the only freeway we have here.

Waze is basically an interactive map on which reports from users are plotted in something very close to realtime. These include speed traps, wrecks, potholes, construction, and other miscellaneous hazards. The reports are generally accurate, right down to the potholes. When traffic is slow, Waze knows it, because GPS can calculate your speed. When two or more Waze users are going slow on a particular route, Waze paints the road in red and indicates what the speed currently is.

This is cleverness but not genius. Back in the wardriving era when GPS was first commonly available (back in 2000-2003 or so) I had this notion that a system could gather information about speed traps, if only there were a way to get reports to the central server from user cars. Then, wham! Smartphones happened. The rest is history.

No, the genius part of Waze is that its creators turned it into a sort of combination video game and social network. Waze users are plotted on Waze maps right along with the speed traps and potholes. It integrates with things like Foursquare. You get points by submitting reports and spotting errors on Waze maps. (You actually get points just by driving around with Waze running on your phone, which allows them to gauge speeds on the roads.) People with the most points get swords, shields, or crowns to wear on their little ghost-like Waze icons. Intriguingly, you can send messages to other Waze users, create teams of drivers, and other things that I haven’t quite figured out yet, including searches for cheap gas. Even doing as little driving as we do, in three weeks we managed to rack up over 900 points. There’s a stack rank of users for each state. (We’re down in the 100,000 range for Colorado.) Carol got some points for making roadkill out of a piece of hard candy that mysteriously appeared on the Waze map in front of us. If that sort of thing appealed to us, I suspect we would be addicts, like the people with over half a million points obviously are.

There are two fairly obvious downsides to the Waze system:

  • To be useful, Waze requires that a certain critical mass of users be prowling around your town, reporting things. Here in the Springs, this rarely happens outside rush hours. I’m guessing that in smaller towns, Waze never really gets out of first gear. Like so much these days, it’s a YUH (young urban hipster) phenomenon.
  • As if I even had to mention, it’s yet another driver distraction, probably in the same league with texting. That’s why we only use it when we’re both in the car, and Carol typically does the reporting and the sniffing ahead for congestion.

I’m starting to see articles about how cops hate it because of speed trap reporting, which suggests that, at least in large urban areas, it’s working as designed. I like it for the sake of the traffic reports, which I suspect will be even more useful the next time we’re in Denver, or lord knows Chicago. Problematic for one, useful (and sometimes fun) for two.

Cautiously recommended.

Review: Wreck-It Ralph

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A month or so ago, one of my TGO beta testers sent me an email: “Jeff, you must see this movie. And not because it’s fun. ‘Nuff said.” Personal issues kept me from renting it until the other night.

Now I understand.

The fantasy premise of Wreck-It Ralph is brilliant: In a video arcade full of coin-op console machines, the characters in the video games all live secret lives when the arcade closes and the lights go out. Each video game console is a separate universe, connected with all the others through a network that operates over the power lines. Game characters can visit other games via the network, and hang out with the characters there. Cross-game friendships are not only possible, but common. Picture going out for drinks with QBert and Sonic the Hedgehog. (Both make cameos in the film.)

Wreck-It Ralph is the Bad Guy in a game starring Fix-It Felix. Ralph wrecks a building from the top down by beating on things with his ginormous fists, and the game players try to stay ahead by steering Felix and his magic golden hammer, which fixes everything it touches. Felix rescues the inhabitants of his building, and when he gets ahead of Ralph’s mayhem, is rewarded with pies and, ultimately, golden medals. It’s a classic (and I assume fictional) game in the late 80s Donkey Kong style, with Ralph shaped and sized a great deal like Donkey Kong himself.

Ralph is bummed. Everybody loves Felix, who gets pies and medals and sleeps in a penthouse in his building. Ralph, by contrast, lives in the nearby garbage dump and gets no recognition for his hard work, beyond getting thrown off the top of the building when the player completes the level. Ralph attends a weekly support group for video game bad guys, including a zombie, Satan, and one of the Pac Man ghosts. (There are several others that may be real, though not being a gamer I didn’t recognize them.) He wants recognition, and goes off looking for other games that might conceivably grant him a medal for his contributions.

He soon finds one: Hero’s Duty, which is a sort of supercharged Doom or Quake. The other characters are shaped just like him, so he mugs a character for his armor and goes off to fight deadly cyberbugs that are in reality viruses that can infect any video game. The commander of the platoon is the sleek and improbably proportioned Calhoun, a butt-kicking cannon-packing woman warrior with a tragic backstory: Her fiancee was eaten by one of the bugs. Ralph earns a medal (he’s great at trashing bugs) but accidentally releases one of the bugs into another game universe, a kart race targeted at preteen girls where everything (including the karts) is made of candy.

Ralph goes hunting for the bug, and eventually redeems himself by helping snotty little kart driver girl Vanellope. Vanellope contains corrupt code, and “glitches” every so often, flashing into a silhouette of ones and zeroes. Ralph and Felix and Calhoun team up to fight the cyberbugs and repair Vanellope’s damaged code and memory. The plot is a good deal more complex and interesting than that, but I don’t want to spoil it too much. There’s a rogue game character in disguise, a short but intriguing visit “behind the graphics” to the game’s code (which looks like a vast 3-D structure chart) and so many gamer references that I’m sure I got maybe 25% at best. For ongoing tension you have a Diet Coke-filled volcano plugged with thousands upon thousands of…Mentos. Yikes.

I don’t consider Wreck-It Ralph brilliant in the sense that Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon are brilliant, but it’s lots of fun and well worth a night’s rental, especially if you have tweens. (Toddlers may find some parts of it a little too scary.) What my TGO beta-tester was talking about were the parallels to the virtual universe I created in TGO and populated with AI characters created to do various jobs, with homes and private lives outside their virtual workplaces. I even have a cannon-packing warrior woman who is an executive assistant by day, and later discovers a first-person shooter game built into her kernel in which she is one of the game skins.

In TGO, one of my AIs fails to do his job well enough to satisfy his creators, and is ordered to go place himself in archival storage. On his way to his own slot, he passes the doors to storage slots containing other failed AIs:

Other names on other doors didn’t ring a bell. Maria, Randall, Tanner, Judith, all archived before his time. Here and there was a name he did recognize: William, who had been training to work in tech support and had joined him several times for doughnuts and coffee. Bones, a Class Four animated skeleton who worked the crowds in a panel at a large amusement park, and off company time enjoyed reciting Victorian poetry. Robert had heard him perform Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” in a Tooniverse coffee shop one evening and found it very moving. Alas, Bones frightened children so much that his product was pulled from the market.

Like Ralph, Robert redeems himself by defending his friends, and by simply going back to what he was created to be. (Robert’s ending isn’t as happy as Ralph’s–hey, this is a Disney movie–but the parallels were striking.)

None of this worries me. I didn’t invent the notion of AIs operating in a virtual world, and neither did Disney. (Granting that they were early in the field, with Tron.) If anything, I felt validated. I first raised the question in 1981: If we create an AI capable of introspection, can the AI suffer? And is the suffering real? I didn’t originate that issue either, but it’s haunted me for decades. I explore it within a humorous framework in TGO, just as Disney does in Wreck-It Ralph. That may be one reason I enjoyed the movie as much as I did.

Recommended, for gonzo imagination, gorgeous animation, and attention to detail. Many wonderful small touches, and enough pee-your-pants laughs to carry you past the setpieces and the boring parts. (We spend a little too much time in the candy universe.) The voice acting was not stellar, with the exception of Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk channeling Ed Wynn’s evil twin. The score is almost nonexistent, though Owl City’s “When Can I See You Again?” is catchy, and completely wasted running over the credits. But enough carping. Rent it, call in your gang to watch it with you, and have fun.

Just remember to hit the bathroom before the Oreo cookies show up. ‘Nuff said.

Review: How to Train Your Dragon

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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.

Wow!

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.

Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-hah!

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.

Replacing Bad Caps in a Good Monitor

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About a month ago, my three-year-old Samsung 214T 21″ LCD monitor started flickering so badly that it could induce a seizure in a lump of granite. It’s been my primary monitor for some time and I love it for several reasons, not the least of which is that it’s a 4:3 and has a built-in pivot on the VESA-compatible stand. So if I want portrait mode I can have it, and all of my machines including the older Dells support it at its 1600X1200 native resolution.

I set the ailing 214T aside and swapped in my downstairs monitor (the older and slower but otherwise similar Samsung 213T) followed by some research on repairs. I had a hunch it was bad electrolytic capacitors. Freaky hardware behavior these days has a high likelihood of being bad electrolytic capacitors, for reasons I explain here. And sure enough, a chap on eBay was selling a caps repair kit specifically for the 214T for $14 shipped. I ordered it, and when it arrived in today’s mail I wasted no time getting to work.

Samsung214TBadCaps1Cropped350Wide.jpgThe “kit” is just a Baggie with six caps and a short length of thin wire solder. If you don’t know soldering you’re going to have some trouble. However, the vendor has a very nice tutorial specific to the similar Samsung 204T/214T units here. It helps that we’re dealing with a power supply board and not a logic board, in that power supply board traces are usually big enough to see. Anybody with a spoonful of bench tech experience won’t have any trouble unsoldering and removing the old caps and getting the new ones soldered in. That took me maybe 10 minutes, granting that I’ve been soldering for almost 50 years and had top-shelf bench tech training at Xerox. No, your real problem will be getting the damned thing apart to where you can remove the PC board to work on it. And the first step is the worst: prying apart the two black plastic halves of the monitor’s case. LCDAlternatives suggests a putty knife in their tutorial, and that’s precisely what it took. And even though I’m very good with disassembly (bruising up a customer’s machine was a serious no-no at Xerox) I scratched up the 214T pretty thoroughly just getting into it. Alas, these units were not designed to be repaired.

Two of the six caps on the power supply board were obviously bad (above left) in that they were domed on top, and one had begun to leak. The others had no visible defects, but that doesn’t guarantee that they hadn’t failed, or wouldn’t fail soon. The kit had six, and I replaced all six.

Total time for the repair was about an hour, including disassembly/reassembly. When I got it plugged back in and powered up, it worked like new, including being a little brighter than it had been shortly before the flickering began. (This is in line with what I’ve read about the effects of bad caps on monitors.) All in all I consider it a big win: Absent the repair, the monitor would have been scrap. I might not have bothered on a smaller or older monitor, but this one I feel is exactly right for what I do, and an hour spent giving it a few more years of service was an hour well-spent indeed.