Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Emperor's New Clothes

Once upon a time, in a Kingdom by the sea, the Emperor decided to buy a new wardrobe for the annual procession.

It may seem odd that the Kingdom had an Emperor, but his father had been ruler of a small Kingdom, and his mother the ruler of another small Kingdom, each claiming one of two valleys nestled between the mountains and the sea. When the two kingdoms were merged by marriage (a fine, traditional, arranged union), "King" no longer seemed grand enough, or so their most powerful advisor said. So at the suggestion of the advisor, whose own title was simply "First Minister," the ruler of the land became the "Emperor."

The people of both Kingdoms rejoiced, since it is ever so much grander to be an Empire than a Kingdom. And the Emperor and Empress ruled grandly until they both died (far too young, all agreed), and then their only son was elevated to the throne.

The newly crowned Emperor loved beautiful new clothes. His only interests were going to the theater or in riding about in his carriage where he could show off his new clothes. He had a different costume for every hour of the day.

You might surmise from this description that the Emperor was at least mildly vainglorious, and susceptible to the flattery and blandishments of his advisors. This was perhaps true, but you should remember that the Emperor had never in his life heard anything but flattery, and had never seen anything that would tell him that there are more important things in life than appearances. So his only worry in life was to dress in elegant clothes, and he changed clothes almost every hour to show them off to his people. He never heard anything from his people save appreciation and admiration.

Word of the Emperor's refined habits spread over his kingdom and beyond. Two scoundrels who had heard of the Emperor's vanity decided to take advantage of it. They introduced themselves at the gates of the palace with a scheme in mind.

"We are tailors and weavers who have dressed the aristocracy of the many European capitals. After many years of research we have invented an extraordinary method to weave a cloth so light and fine that it is almost invisible. In fact it cannot be seen by anyone who is too stupid to appreciate its quality."

The Chief of the Guards heard the scoundrels' strange story and sent for the court Chamberlain. The Chamberlain notified the First Minister, who went to the Emperor and disclosed the news. The Emperor's curiosity got the better of him and he decided to see the two immigrants.

"Your Highness, this cloth will be woven in colors and patterns created especially for you. Its beauty will be in direct proportion to the intelligence, refinement and taste of the observer." The Emperor gave the two men a bag of gold coins in exchange for their promise to begin working on the fabric immediately.

"Just tell us what you need to get started and we'll give it to you," said the Emperor. The two tailors asked for a loom, silk, and gold thread. Then they set to work. The Emperor thought he had spent his money quite well: in addition to getting a new extraordinary suit, he would discover which of his subjects were stupid, incompetent, or lacking in refinement and taste. A few days later, he called the First Minister.

"Go and see how the work is proceeding," the Emperor told him, "and come back to let me know."

The First Minister was welcomed by the two weavers.

"We're almost finished, but we need more gold thread. Here, Excellency! Admire the colors, feel the softness!" The old man bent over the loom and looked at the fabric that was not there.

"What a marvelous fabric," he told them. "I'm sure it will do the job. I'll certainly tell the Emperor."

"We are happy to hear that!" said the two weavers. The Minister inquired about the colors and the unusual patterns. As the weavers described them, the Minister listened closely so that he would be able repeat what they said when he reported back to the Emperor.

Finally, the Emperor received the announcement that the two tailors had come to take all the measurements needed to sew his new suit.

"Come in," the Emperor ordered. Even as they bowed, the two men pretended to be holding large roll of fabric.

"Here it is your Highness, the result of our labor," the unscrupulous men said. "We have worked night and day but, at last, the most beautiful fabric in the world is ready for you. Look at the colors and feel how fine it is." At first the Emperor did not see any colors and could not feel any cloth between his fingers. But he strained his eyes and after a while he felt like fainting. Luckily the throne was right behind him and he sat down. As his vision swirled he saw a few spots and convinced himself that they were where the fabric should be.

"Ah," he said at last. "It is quite marvelous work."

Once they had taken the measurements, the two began cutting the air with scissors while sewing with their needles an invisible cloth.

"Your Highness, you'll have to take off your clothes to try on your new ones." The two scoundrels draped the new clothes on him and then held up a mirror.

"Yes, this is a beautiful suit and it looks very good on me," the Emperor said trying to look comfortable. "You've done a fine job."

Then it was time for the grand procession.

The Emperor summoned his carriage and the ceremonial parade was formed. A group of dignitaries walked at the very front of the procession and anxiously scrutinized the faces of the people in the street. Applause welcomed the royal procession.

The Emperor rode beneath a beautiful canopy, and all the people in the street and in their windows said, "Goodness, the emperor's new clothes are amazing! What a perfect fit!" No one wanted to admit to seeing nothing, for then it would be said that he was unfit for his position, or that he was stupid, or that he lacked refinement and taste. So each person sang the praises of the Emperor's New Clothes. Indeed, none of the Emperor's clothes had ever before received such praise.

Everyone said, loud enough for the others to hear: "Look at the Emperor's New Clothes! They are beautiful! What a marvelous train! And the colors! The colors of that beautiful fabric! I have never seen anything like it in my life!" They all tried to conceal their disappointment at not being able to see the clothes, and since nobody was willing to admit his own stupidity and incompetence, they all behaved as the two scoundrels had predicted.

A child, however, who had no important job and could only see things as his eyes showed them to him, went up to the carriage.

"The Emperor is naked," he said.

"Fool!" his father reprimanded, running after him. "Don't talk nonsense!" But the boy's remark, which had been heard by the bystanders, was repeated over and over again. And soon the remarks were reported to the First Minister.

"Please excuse me, sire," said the First Minister. "There is something I must do."

The First Minister found the boy and his family where they were being held by the Chief of the Guards and several of his men. "Is this the boy who cannot see the Emperor's New Clothes?" asked the First Minister? His men nodded.

"We must nip stupidity in the bud," said the First Minister. "Put out his eyes and remove the tongue of anyone who repeats what he has said."

So the First Minister returned to the procession. By the time he had rejoined the Emperor, the praise of the Emperor's New Clothes had grown much louder, and more poetic. All who watched vied with their neighbors to vehemently assert their admiration for the fineness of his garb.

The procession was a great success. Soon, the tailors had their own clothing shop, where they prepared clothes for the aristocracy of the Kingdom. Word of the fashion soon spread and tourism flourished. Visitors came from all parts of the world to marvel at the magnificent clothing worn by the Emperor and his subjects, especially the younger subjects, who learned to dance and cavort for the entertainment of foreign audiences. Much money was thereby added to the Kingdom's coffers.

And so has our Kingdom flourished, and all are happy and content, even, we think, those eyeless, tongue-less waifs whose moans caress the darkness and who do so help us dream and sleep at night.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Rocket Boys Meet the Radioactive Boy Scout

[Crossposted from WAAGNFP]

Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn't know that my hometown was at war with itself over its children, and that my parents were locked in a kind of bloodless combat over how my brother and I would live our lives. I didn't know that if a girl broke your heart, another girl, virtuous at least in spirit, cold mend it on the same night. And I didn't know that the enthalpy decrease in a converging passage could be transformed into jet kinetic energy if a divergent passage was added. The other boys discovered their own truths when we built our rockets, but those were mine.
-- Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam

Rocket Boys was made into a movie, “October Sky,” the title being an anagram of Rocket Boys, and I’m still charmed by it. I’ve found that the film is much beloved in some quarters, but I found it to be a disappointment, as so many such films are, because the book had the texture of truth, while the film had the texture of Hollywood. Relationships were generified, characters were stereotyped, you know the drill.

There have been a number of historical paths whereby the bright kid gets out and up in the world. Rocket Boys is a description of a new path: Rocket Scientist, exemplified by Hickam himself, but also, to my reading, the more important character, Quentin, the hard scrabble kid who uses his brain and big words to protect himself from his circumstances, and who decides that Hickam, the son of the mine superintendent, has access to the resources they would need to start a rocketry club.

In 1957, the town of Coalwood, in West Virginia, is cut off from the world in ways that are simply unfathomable today. For example, a major point in the book is when their science teacher, through considerable effort, manages to procure for them a book on rocketry. One. Single. Book. Is it possible to picture such a time today, when and are universally available? I’ve lived in towns nearly as removed as Coalwood, but I have to work very hard at imagining (or remembering) what it was like. It’s simply another world.

One running joke through Rocket Boys are the crazy ideas that Quentin gets, like when he and the rest of the club are talking about making out with girls, considering the wonders of the female undergarment, and Quentin begins to speculate that it might be an efficient thing to combine stockings with panties into a single garment. Or when he’s considering orange juice and instant coffee and wondering if it would be possible to produce some product like instant orange juice.

In the epilog that follows where the rocketry club boys wound up, a goodly number of them became engineers. One can only speculate how many of them became science fiction fans.

The dark side of the teenage geek can be seen in the story of the Radioactive Boy Scout, the story of David Hahn, who, as a teenager in suburban Detroit, managed to accumulate a large collection of radioactive materials, plus build a homemade neutron source that he used to irradiate thorium and uranium, in hopes of building a breeder reactor. What he got was a decontamination team from the NRC, who hauled away the shed in which he’d kept his material and a tour in the Navy, where he wasn’t allowed to work near nuclear reactors, because he’d already substantially surpassed the allowed lifetime exposure to radiation.

The book is based on an article from Harper’s magazine.

I’ll note this warning about the book, which often speaks of how “advanced” was David’s knowledge of radiation chemistry. In reality, Hahn’s knowledge was pretty spotty, which is what you’d expect from an autodidact. At one point he’s shown to be baffled as to why he doesn’t get a Geiger counter reading from polonium (it’s a pure alpha emitter and alpha radiation cannot penetrate the counting tube). He seems to have only the vaguest understanding about neutron moderation and implications on fissile fuel breeding, and, needless to say, the concept of radiation health safety is pretty much beyond him.

To be fair, I don’t know how much of this ignorance is Hahn’s and how much of it is the author’s, or, more specifically, how much of the author’s obvious ignorance is also the case for Hahn.

I’m given to muse a bit on both the upside and the downside of the geek effect. Is the difference in outcome between Rocket Boys, and The Radioactive Boy Scout merely one of luck? After all, the rockets were far from safe, and did nearly cause damage a time or two (though it must be observed that the fatalities in Coalwood were invariably from the coal mine, not the rockets). More importantly, I think, comes the observation that, if you’re going to go off into the wild blue yonder, figuratively or literally, it helps to have some friends in it with you, just to keep you grounded.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Author's Note and Some Introduction to Dark Underbelly

About [cough] number of years ago, I had this idea. I had it while reading technical papers on the atmosphere of Venus.

The Cytherean (the hoity toity adjective for "Venusian") atmosphere is way cool for an atmospheric scientist. For one thing, there's so much of it, almost 100 times as much as Earth's. It has about as much nitrogen as Earth's atmosphere, but the rest of it is carbon dioxide, pretty much a planetary supply of it, whereas most of Earth's carbon dioxide is locked up in carbonate rocks, with a lesser amount dissolved in the oceans, and just a whisper in the air itself. Our oxygen does derive from CO2, however, with the remaining carbon mostly spread about in little bits of graphite in the crust, plus a few smidges in higher concentrations, which we call fossil fuels.

Venus is a "runaway greenhouse," hot as hell on the surface, and pressurized to boot. Not a place you'd want to live.

But while I was reading those technical articles, I noticed the pressure/temperature curves, and they said that between 50 and 60 kilometers above the surface, where the atmospheric pressure was near one bar, i.e. what we have on the Earth's surface, the temperature was also pretty livable, maybe 20-30 Celsius, say from 68 to 86 degrees F, for those who think in those units.

Well, there's a reason for that, and part of it has to do with Venus being an imperfect greenhouse, like Earth is, except that Earth has a lot of water vapor and not much CO2 and Venus has a lot of CO2 and not much water vapor. It does, however, have clouds of dilute sulfuric acid. The tops of those clouds are pretty close to that "Earth zone" of pressure and temperature.

Okay, so even in the "Earth zone" breathing the air would kill you in seconds, so you'd never notice the acid fog as it ate away your clothes and skin. So you don't want to try to live out in the open. But how about inside of something?

The air is carbon dioxide. A balloon filled with oxygen and nitrogen will float in a carbon dioxide atmosphere.

So I wrote a story about it, "Aphrodite's Children." A. J. Budrys liked it, so it appeared in Tomorrow SF. And there was a back story, about interplanetary colonies cut off from Earth because something really bad had happened on Earth. I made it a plague, with a lingering planetary defense system that had gone crazy because it was robotic and robots go crazy when a lot of people die on them. Seemed reasonable. Part of it is old SF tropes, and part is the "we need to colonize Space because all our eggs shouldn't be in one basket." And part of that was just how dubious a rationale that is for colonization. Losing Earth would probably kill any actual colonies, but I put it through the everything-you-expect-is-wrong grinder and came out with a lost Mars colony, a weirdly flourishing Venus, and an authoritarian State on the Moon.

All in the back of my head, you understand. Little of this made it to "Aphrodite's Children."

And then I woke up one morning with the beginning of a story in my head that I couldn't shake. The guy in the story woke up too, and he was irritable, and smart-mouthed, and dangerous, and he'd done something really, really bad once, and a lot of people were very indebted to him because he'd done it.

And I didn't know what he'd done, but I had to find out, so I began to write.

I was part of an ongoing group of professional writers at the time, since jokingly named "Will Write for Food." We had monthly meetings, and I brought in about three chapters a month. And most everybody was fascinated by the story, especially including me. It was rather like reading one of the old serialized pulp stories, even for me, because things kept happening in it that I didn't expect or plan on.

And the protagonist, Ed Honlin, (look, his name came from the dream also, so I can't tell you how I got it), was a classic noir detective, in an environment where firearms were almost entirely absent. You don't shoot off a gun when you're inside of a balloon, even if metal is plentiful, which it isn't on my Venus. And you don't use guns on the Moon, because, well, damn, there's vacuum outside, isn't there?

So it's all martial arts and such, and my guy is both big and well-trained. It turned out that he'd had some enhancements added as well. He can't beat everybody, but he can pretty much beat anybody, if you know what I mean.

He's also damaged goods, in many, many ways. And he knows much more than he should about torture. I wrote all of this before Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and I found upon later re-reading it that I didn't have to change a thing. I hadn't done any in depth research on torture, but it doesn't take a maven to realize that Jack Bauer fantasies are crap.

Anyway, you can get this much from the first chapter. I'm going to put up the whole thing, a chapter at a time, at my convenience or at others' urging, because there aren't any old pulp magazines to serialize this thing, and I've been recently reminded that life is short and I'm tired of waiting for agents and publishers to figure out what to do with it. Maybe if a few more people read it, they'll figure it out.

One way or another.

It's title is Dark Underbelly.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Sun Ra

Names changed to initials and location withheld, just in case…

I was visiting T, a buddy of mine at RPI, and our mutual friend D gave us a call. “Sun Ra’s playing tonight; do you want to go?”

I was only vaguely aware of Sun Ra and his Arkestra; since that first time I’ve seen him twice (and won’t ever see him again, as he died in 1993), but if the order of performances were reversed, I’d have still been unprepared for the experience of that first night. I never saw a performance like that again

Sun Ra was playing in the basement of a (black) Baptist Church, and there was a set of dancers with him. The music that night was almost pure percussion, including the electric piano that Sun Ra himself was playing. Hell, even the saxophone that joined in later seemed like a percussion instrument.

The first two dancers were women, dressed in what seemed to be an array of scarves, their arms outstretched to either side and undulating; if you’d told me that they’d had their bones replaced with rubber I’d have considered it possible. Later they were joined by a male dancer, who had feathers attached in what I vaguely remember as being called the “Rooster Dance,” which has Haitian or Cuban roots. I remember him as also playing the saxophone.

The overall impact was powerful and breathtaking, and that led to a bit of a problem. The three of us had consumed a goodly bit of the ceremonial herb on the drive over, and the night was hot, the church basement even hotter, with a ventilation system not meant to accommodate the crush of people there.

These constitute a good way to set off an anxiety attack, and T had one. I sensed him trembling and saw the look on his face, so I wasn’t surprised when he said, “I’ve got to get some air.” He had a bit of trouble standing, so I took his elbow and guided him outside.

Once outside, we walked around corner of the building and we both lay flat on our backs on the cool of the concrete porch at the front of the church while T babbled a little. After a little bit, it dawned on me that he’d just had a racial panic attack.

Okay, the church basement was full of blacks; other than the three of us, there were maybe four other whites in a room that probably held nearly a hundred people. T was having trouble breathing because of the drugs, the heat, and the stifling air. But he was a middle-class white boy from the suburbs and he’d never been in a situation like that and the fear funneled through his imagination and produced jungle stereotype images straight out of Hollywood B movies.

He knew it was dumb; he knew it wasn’t real; he knew his mind was playing tricks on him. But panic is panic and he was smart enough to make an orderly retreat.

And let’s get clear about the other thing: what I had going for me was experience. I knew full well that the people in the basement or the church were the same people (metaphorically speaking), who had cheered our speeches at the Elks Club in Nashville, the same ones I’d ridden the bus with three times a weeks for ten years when I was younger, the ones I’d talked to at the bowling alley when I was younger still. If I’d had a panic attack it would have focused on something different, not because of some intrinsic virtue of mine, but simply because my imagination throws up different panic images. There are classes of people that are scary to me, but deep down inside, I feel that black people are my friends.

So T and I talked for a bit, and then I started making with the funny. Laughter is a good way to remind the body how to breathe, and stoned guys are an easy audience. And when I need to, I can be a pretty funny guy. So a few minutes later, T and I were laughing like fools on the porch of a Baptist Church, and a while after that we went back inside to watch the rest of the show, from the doorway, where you could still feel the hint of a breeze from the dark and blessed night.

And just so no one forgets the important part, that night, in the basement of a Baptist Church, Sun Ra put on one hell of a show.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Scientific Method

In my experience and observation, what’s sometimes taught in schools as “The Scientific Method” if fairly rare in the actual practice of science. But I’m going to brag a little about a time when I did get to go through the thing pretty much in the prescribed manner (from the Wikipedia entry on Scientific Method):
  • Define the question
  • Gather information and resources
  • Form hypothesis
  • Perform experiment and collect data
  • Analyze data
  • Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypotheses
  • Publish results

The question we were working on was the photooxidation of toluene (used as a solvent and a component of gasoline) in photochemical smog. It’s a moderately complicated molecule, a benzene ring with a methyl group replacing a hydrogen, and somewhere in its oxidation process, we knew that the ring had to open, and, well, then what?

What I brought to the problem was systems theory and a familiarity with simulation modeling, something that the previous generation of smog researchers had only intermittently. In articular, I was concentrating on the mass flows in the system, which you’d think that chemists would do as a matter of course, but no, they didn’t. In fact, in most generalized photochemical mechanisms that I analyzed, it turned out they didn’t conserve carbon. In once case the non-conservation was so bad that it actually was an infinite carbon generator; the mechanism alone generated more hydrocarbons than did emissions!

So anyway, I was looking to see how toluene oxidized in the atmosphere. Now smog is basically a “slow burn,” with the “burning” mediated by what are called free radicals, in this case hydroxyl (HO), and peroxyl, the simplest being hydroperoxyl (HOO). The HO and peroxyl radicals cycle back and forth in the oxidation process, and one of the byproducts is ozone.

The source of the radicals is partly burned hydrocarbons: aldehydes, ketone, glyoxals, a lot of things having a carbonyl group (C=O) in them. Some of these are emitted by automobiles directly, but the smog process makes during its slow burn. These compounds are photolytic; the break down in the presence of UV light to form free radicals.

The smog process also consumes the primary “fuels,” hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides (NOx), with the burn essentially ceasing when the system runs out of NOx.

What I was looking at was the “stoichiometry” of ozone formed as a ratio to NOx consumed. It varies with conditions, so I put “stoichiometry” in quotes. While running my numbers for various hydrocarbons, it became pretty clear that toluene produced much less ozone per unit of NOx than did other hydrocarbons.

Whitten had already gotten an ad hoc simulation mechanism for toluene by reacting it with a short-lived species nitrogen trioxide (NO3). We figured that the NO3 was reacting with some oxidation product of toluene, which wasn’t a very big leap, partly because the “ring-opened” compounds would have a lot of very active double bonds (C=C) that were known to react with NO3.

I’ll also mention that my systems analysis strongly suggested that toluene was producing something that photolyzed very rapidly to free radicals. That meant that toluene, if added to other hydrocarbons, would accelerate the oxidation process. But the above-average consumption of NOx should then terminate the reaction at a lower level of ozone than would occur from the other hydrocarbons.

We had an EPA contract that let us suggest smog chamber experiments to the University of North Carolina researchers who had a two-sided, outdoor smog chamber that was perfect for controlled experiments. So I suggested that they load one side of the chamber with a standard mix of NOx and propylene (or propene, or methyl ethane, which are different words for the same stuff), and the other side with the same mix, plus some toluene. I told them that it should form ozone more quickly in the morning but produce an ozone peak that was notably less than
the control side.

It’s been called a “daring prediction.” I don’t remember feeling that daring. It seemed pretty inevitable to me, and I would have been mightily surprised if it hadn’t worked. I’ll never know, because it worked exactly as I predicted.

There were other hydrocarbons known to suppress ozone formation. Some like reactive olefins, simply react directly with ozone, so if there’s enough of them around, they’ll destroy the ozone as it’s being formed. One of them, isoprene, produces some very bizarre looking ozone curves in smog chamber experiments, where the ozone first goes up, then down, then up again after the isoprene has all been destroyed, but while the partly oxidized products of the isoprene still can
continue to react. Continuing my brag, I was the first person to get those double peaks in simulations also.

Another class of hydrocarbons suppressed ozone formation by soaking up free radicals. One is called DEHA (diethylhydroxyamine, if memory serves), and it was touted as a smog palliative for a while, until it was shown to boost smog once its radical absorption property was used up.

What we’d done, however, was to show that there was a new class of compounds that could, under some conditions reduce ozone peaks. It wasn’t anything like a smog palliative, because toluene is nasty stuff, and the things it forms are nastier still. But scientifically, it was very cool research.

Later we published a brief communication on the two-sided experiment alone, and also a paper on our toluene photooxidation mechanism. I don’t think that all the products of toluene oxidation have been identified to this very day, but we got the main features of its mass balance and ozone formation behavior twenty years ago. As they say, it was good enough for smog research.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Dragon Blood

[Crossposted from WAAGNFP]

OK, there was this time in college, I was dating a girl named Rhoda, and she invited me home for a weekend, and so I thought … no way am I telling that one.
Jon Carroll, San Francisco Chronicle

There are some stories that I can’t just change the names and get away with it. Probably the most important part of that is that the individuals involved would still recognize themselves, and it would, despite all attempts at anonymity, still be an invasion of privacy. Some stories are just too intrinsically personal.

Moreover, there are some bits of personal history, that, no matter how much I might try to take all the blame for whatever bad things happen, it wouldn’t be enough, and other people would be shown in a bad light. I’m not always against that, mind you, but sometimes I am, especially when I had too great a hand in the unfortunate events.

Sometimes, making a story more generic removes all its flavor. At that point, there’s no reason to tell the thing in the first place. That’s one of the places where you opt for out-and-out fiction, keeping the flavor, but creating new characters for all the events, and distancing the events by wrapping them in the outlandish, putting them in the future, for example, or having them occur while there is a serial killer on the rampage. Even that is a risk, of course. Sometime people still recognize themselves in your fiction; sometimes they do so before the writer does. Tough. That’s the biz, baby.

The one I’m about to tell takes generification to some sort of limit, I think, but there are some philosophical points that I’ll get at, probably not the most important things in the real story, but the only nuggets that I can pull from this stream at this time.

In the early 1980s, I had my heart broken by a woman who had no idea at the time that she was doing it. That can happen when you carry a torch in sufficient secrecy for long enough.

It was hardly the first time I’d had my heart broken. If you’re still single in your thirties and haven’t had your heart broken a few times, you’re really not trying very hard at life. Still, this particular one felt different. It didn’t have the feeling of failed infatuation, for one thing. It didn’t damage my self-confidence that way a humiliating heartbreak does. Rather, there was a deep sense of loss that I couldn’t fully plumb, and a feeling that my future had somehow changed. It was some combination of freedom and being adrift.

Maybe it’s only hindsight, but I also had the feeling that I was in for some trouble. Or maybe that I was about to go looking for trouble.

When you really want to get into trouble, (and by “you” I mean “me”), the best enabler is usually a woman. That’s my drug of choice anyway. It only took me a few months to find the right one. I’ll call her June, which is obviously not her name at all; I’ve never dated a June.

Okay, here, massive generic evasion. I am not going to give any specific details about why June was trouble. I’ll note that, between the first time I met her, and the time we’d agreed to have lunch, something really bad happened to her, so she missed our first lunch date. I’ll also stipulate that you aren’t likely to figure out what that “really bad something” was, so don’t bother trying to guess. Just realize that, when I heard about it, I knew that the danger content of knowing her had just gone up by several orders of magnitude, and that we were going to become lovers, and that it would end badly.

There is an absolutely brilliant sequence in Alan Moore’s groundbreaking comic Watchmen, concerning Dr. Manhattan, who is the only character in the book with truly superhuman powers. Okay, Ozymandias can catch bullets as a bit of a trick, but Dr. Manhattan can teleport, transmute elements, and be in several places at once. He also experiences time, his own personal history, all at once, so he can foretell the future. At one point, he takes his girlfriend to Mars, and makes a reference to a time, several minutes in the future, when she surprises him with the information that she’s having an affair with another hero.

Then, several minutes in the future, she mentions the affair, and Dr. Manhattan is surprised. He knew what was coming, but he was still surprised when it happened.

He has to be surprised sometime, and that was the time, even if he knew about it in advance.

So I knew it was temporary and that June was going to dump me at some point; I even told that to a close friend when she asked me about the relationship (out of concern for my well-being, bless her). Furthermore, I’ll even suggest that whatever attempts I’d made to cushion that eventual blow, made the breakup even worse, because it added to the degree to which I was culpable, and it meant that I’d not been as good a person as my own ego ideal would like to believe. Some of the attraction had been that I was playing white knight, and instead I seemed to have a bit of dragon blood in me, as it were.

And it hurt. It really, really hurt. All the pain and humiliation that I hadn’t felt with the original heartbreak, well, I made up for it when June dumped me. And, just as an indication of the original, obvious danger content, it wasn’t a clean break, and couldn’t be, because circumstances meant that I still saw her on a regular basis.

Pretty good job of it, eh?

Okay now, the bit of philosophical payoff that I referred to earlier.

I’ve been following various feminist discussions on the net for quite a while, from even before what is now called teh blogosphere. And one of the issues that comes up frequently is the “nice guys don’t get laid,” discussion, also known as “Why do good girls like bad boys?” (from the song by Angel and the Reruns, in the Tom Hanks movie Bachelor Party). There are plenty of snarky things said about guys who say this, and rightfully so. The gist of the rightful snark is that being shy and insecure is not the same as being a “nice guy” and exactly why is being “nice” supposed to be rewarded by sex? That expectation, in fact, sounds like something other than “nice,” doesn’t it?

As a critique of male hypocrisy, the argument is spot on. I’ll stipulate that I agree with it.

However, after the episode with June, after the initial acute pain and humiliation wore off, I found myself in a state that combined pain and anger. Neither of those was intense, and I was raised well, and I’m a polite fellow. But there’s plenty of psychic energy in both pain and anger, and the mix is potent.

And I was catnip to women. They sat down next to me at lunch counters and struck up conversations. They latched onto me at parties and invited me home. They asked me to walk them to their cars from bars and they gave me their phone numbers. They invited me up to their rooms at conventions.

Okay, I was also in my early thirties, employed at a good, high status job, and I’d been practicing Aikido and doing weight training, so I’d filled out an astonishingly thin (in college I was just over 6 feet tall and weighed 130 lbs) with an extra 15-20 lbs of muscle. I was blond with dark black eyebrows and dark beard (since gone to gray) and had a sardonic look. So it wasn’t as if I’d somehow gone to sleep one night as a pimply geek and woke up the next as some sort of hunk. I’d never been unattractive physically, and I’d been complimented on my appearance before, and I wasn’t anything approaching a “30 year old virgin.”

But this was new, and I found it very easy to take advantage. Moreover, there were at least a couple of occasions where I was, by my lights anyway, something of a bastard. And it was expected of me, as nearly as I can tell. The women expected it, and, for all I know, would have been disappointed if I hadn’t acted that way.

It wore off after a while. The pain and anger faded, and I’m not very good at the bastard part anyway. But I can’t say that I didn’t have fun, because I did. And I hope that the women involved enjoyed it half as much as I did, because then it was worth their while as well. They got to play with what was, when all is said and done, a pretty tame monster, to no lasting damage. I suspect that’s the purpose, in fact. We all like to think that we can tame the monster, and there’s really only the one door. It leads to both the Lady and the Tiger, and they are one and the same.

Saturday, September 8, 2007


In Stranger in a Strange Land, Valentine Michael Smith compares himself to a spy satellite, one that collects data for a period of time, and then is “triggered” to transmit its data back to home base. Smith had been “programmed” by the Martians that had adopted him, and at a certain point, all he’d learned on Earth was made available to them.

Later in the book, after Smith’s “discorporation” we learn that the Heavenly Bureaucracy works more or less the same way, and Smith is actually Archangel Michael, sent to Earth as an “angel unaware,” and who now, as a result of his time on Earth, has some ideas about how to make some changes to the system.

In “One for the Books” by Richard Matheson, (a short story in Shock, later made into a teleplay for the “Amazing Stories” show), the protagonist is made into a human knowledge sponge, who is completely drained of his accumulated knowledge by the aliens who set him up. His last words are “I been squeezed.”

In Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, the citizens of the future live for a thousand years, then have their memories uploaded into a central database. They are later “re-incarnated” with a set of edited memories.

In “The Seminar from Hell” David Gerrold gives a brief description of the afterlife as a “merging with the godhead,” bringing the life experiences back into the great cosmic all.

I’ll leave it to the reader to decide the extent to which God and aliens are interchangeable. Certainly there are UFO cults that look religious, and religions that try to justify their faith with appeals to science (or science-y sounding rationalizations). In any case, the thrust of these stories is to attempt to discern some purpose to human existance.

There are many examples of the mystical “spy from above” narrative to be found in science fiction and fantasy, to say nothing of the musings of Joseph Campbell. Indeed, the “merging with the light” that comes from the pop cultural “near death experience” narrative can be viewed as something like this. It can be viewed as a form of pantheism, and it fits into a reincarnation mythology pretty easily.

From a theological perspective, it has a major advantage: it gives a plausible motive for the behavior of a deity. An omniscient, omnipotent being does have paradoxical limitations, such as not knowing what ignorance or weakness feels like. Only by abandoning godhood (albeit temporarily) can these limitations be addressed. Campbell has suggested that this might be the real import of Christ and the Crucifixion, though his is obviously a minority view.

However, such a theology fails to serve the purposes for which most people look to theology: the providing of a base for morals and ethics. A quick swing to the Wikipedia finds the germane quote from Schopenhauer:

If the world is a theophany, then everything done by man, and even by animal, is equally divine and excellent; nothing can be more censurable and nothing more praiseworthy than anything else; hence there is no ethics.

That’s a little harsh (though how can one not like a word like theophany?) In fact, it merely means that such a theology can provide no ethics. Nothing prevents us from determining ethics by other means.

In any case, my own two cents comes in the form of my story, “Flower in the Void,” which may be found here.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Little Scotsman

The Nashville Public Library that was home to much of my misspent youth was one of the original Carnegie Libraries, built in 1904, with the book stacks in an iron skeleton and translucent glass floors that were characteristic of many libraries before electric lighting took over the world. Leather soled shoes on glass generates a lot of static electricity on dry winter days, and many was the time when the first touch to the railing on the metal stairs brought this library patron a sudden exit from the world of daydreams.

A friend taught me the trick of holding a metal coin tightly and touching it to the railing to discharge the static. I’m not sure whether this was to reduce the shock (which it did, if only by eliminating the surprise and reducing involuntary muscle contraction because of the tight grip), or to maximize the spark. Sometimes we’d get sparks that traveled a goodly inch or two, occasionally with branching, like real lightning.

Nashville got a new library building in 1965, but for years afterwards, there were still books on the stacks that bore the imprint of the Carnegie Library of Nashville.

There was a feature on Carnegie a few nights ago on the PBS News Hour. While Economics Correspondent Paul Solman did a pretty good job, given the venue and time constraints, he missed some pretty important points.

First, Carnegie actually considered himself a friend of the working man, much like Henry Ford did a while later (before Ford, like Carnegie, resorted to the hired muscle of the Pinkerton Agency). In fact, in 1886, Carnegie wrote an article defending unions. But when the workers at the Homestead steel mill began thinking of the plant as more theirs than his (culminating in a worker seizure of the plant in 1892), Carnegie took action.

But he took action by proxy. Carnegie was actually on a trans-Atlantic voyage at the time that his partner, Henry Frick (who had joined his own coke making operation with Carnegie Steel in 1881), hired the Pinkertons who laid siege to the plant. The Pinkertons lost the battle, but the incident gave the Governor of Pennsylvania the excuse to send in the state militia, who evicted the workers and strikebreakers were then used to re-open the mill.

Carnegie was in telegraphic communication with Frick during the entire episode, and his reputation as a “friend of the working man” pretty much ended in that incident. But Carnegie continued to consider himself a friend of the downtrodden to his dying day, and always blamed the Homestead “incident” on Frick. He may have used that as part of his rationalization for attempting to later screw Frick in a buyout deal in 1900.

In 1901, Carnegie sold Carnegie steel to J. P. Morgan, or, more accurately to the bank, the J. P. Morgan and Co., to form the core of U. S. Steel. U. S. Steel was capitalized at a billion dollars; Carnegie was paid $480 million, and became the richest man in the world.

Carnegie was a Spenserian Social Darwinist, but, unlike many Social Darwinists, he didn’t believe in inherited wealth as a blood right. Instead, as he had written in “The Gospel of Wealth,” he believed in the “stewardship” of society by the wealthy, and that included large doses of philanthropy. Upon obtaining half a billion in 1901 dollars (on the order of an inflation adjusted 10 billion in today’s dollars, but a vastly greater sum in terms of, for example the fraction of U.S. GNP), Carnegie proceeded to give most of it away, to foundations of varying purposes, including the building of libraries.

But here is what you seldom hear in stories about Carnegie: Yes, he built libraries and put books in them, but he did not pay the salaries to librarians; he did not pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the buildings. Those tasks were left to the cities that got the libraries. Carnegie leveraged his philanthropy with a large amount of public money; eventually far more than he had actually given.

This was social engineering on a large scale, and it used private money to sway the priorities of the public purse. I was, as I have said many times, a major beneficiary of Carnegie’s social engineering. I daresay that I was just the sort of bright, self motivated individual that he had in mind as a beneficiary. Indeed, Carnegie started his real business ascent at a telegraph operator (see “I have a Code,”and made his first stake by investing in deals that he learned of as the telegrapher, i.e., what we now call insider trading.

Andrew Carnegie is in no way any sort of libertarian, Randite, or even Spenserian
role model. A great deal of his success had to do with being fortunately the right person in the right place at the right time. He lived in a time when government was at the beck and call of wealth, and his wealth derived in part from the land grants given to railroads (which bought his steel), the use to state troops to break strikes, and a complete disregard for polluting the property (and bodies) of other people. In the end, his greatest philanthropic achievement was to divert tax money to a purpose of his conception.

Yes, I’m an heir to Carnegie’s philanthropy, and rightly glad of it. Still, we bite the hands that feed us, and when you set out to enable education, especially self-education, don’t be surprised if some of the ideas that result are not entirely what you had in mind.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

You Know I Couldn't Pass Up This One

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND—The Wikipedia entry on Dada—the World War I–era "anti-art" movement characterized by random nonsense words, bizarre photocollage, and the repurposing of pre-existing material to strange and disturbing effect—may or may not have been severely vandalized, sources said Monday.

"This is either totally messed up or completely accurate," said Reed College art history major Ted Brendon. "There's a mustache drawn on the photo of Marcel Duchamp, the font size keeps changing [too easy], and halfway through, the type starts going in a circle []. Also, the majority of the actual entry is made up of Krazy Kat cartoons with abstract poetry written in the dialogue balloons."

The fact that the web page continually reverts to a "normal" state, observers say, is either evidence that ongoing vandalization is being deleted through vigilant updating, or a deliberate statement on the impermanence of superficial petit-bourgeois culture in the age of modernity.