Monday, December 31, 2007

Paying Attention to Attention

[Hauled up from my Newsgroup archives; originally written June 21, 2006]

I hit a minor traffic jam on the way home, the other day. It was a “rubbernecker jam,” caused by some cars stopped by the side of the road, people out of the cars, probably exchanging information, but I was busy trying to get by them both safely and as fast as possible, so I didn’t see much.

It often makes sense to slow down. If there are people walking around by the side of the road, common sense suggests you shouldn’t speed by in the adjacent lane. I usually try to get as many lanes over as possible, and to slow down as little as possible, especially if the highway is near “jam condition,” i.e. when traffic flow is near maximum and the average speed is near 40 mph. Under jam conditions, anything that slows traffic will turn the entire highway into stop-and-go, because speeds below 40 have lower flow rates. Behind you is maximum flow rate, ahead of you is less than that. What do you think is going to happen?

Some people slow down to look at anything that catches their attention, though, even things that aren’t hazards. In fact, the slowing down adds a new hazard, but what is that, or the inconvenience of jamming the highway, compared to satisfying your curiosity?

I have very low impulse control when it comes to curiosity, so I should probably be a sucker for rubbernecking. But I’m also a contrary cuss, and I don’t like having my attention grabbed like that. Besides, it’s not as if an accident scene is something I’m particularly interested in.

Other things I’m not particularly interested in include political press conferences, presidential addresses, interviews of grief-stricken family members, stories about celebrity trials, celebrity marriages, celebrity divorces, prostitution rings, home invasions, the growing menace of meth, the growing menace of illegal aliens, pedophiles, and how they use the internet, stories about the internet generally, and pretty much anything that is followed by the words “News at 11.”

So I generally confine my TV news viewing to The Daily Show, and occasionally PBS. I get a newspaper, and I’ve got this internet thing going as well, not that you should be interested in that.

The thing is that attention, mine and yours, has a price tag. It always has, at least as long as I’ve been alive, but the competition for attention has been increasing. Even in strict economic terms, that means that when someone grabs your attention, they’re stealing from you. In more meta terms, philosophical even, they’re making you less free.

There are a lot of ways of grabbing attention. Loud noises, flashing lights, grisly images, those work pretty well. So do good looking women, children, and kittens. Or puppies. Oh what fools they were for rejecting The Puppy Channel!

What also works is making you afraid. There’s a lot of that going around. It’s related to making you angry, and there’s a ton of that, too, as well as making you gleeful because someone else (the right someone) is going to be angry or afraid. That’s the stock-in-trade of some right-wing hatemongers, but don’t kid yourself, your politics only speaks to which someone is trying to make you afraid of, or angry about.

But what to do about it? It’s a conundrum, because “Every knock is a boost.”

When someone tells you how much they hate a certain commercial, they are nevertheless spreading the information in that commercial, and sensitizing you to it. The reaction itself spreads it, like sneezing with a cold. The same thing applies when one complains about hate speech.

A friend of mine is a physician in Florida, and he has a colleague who got sucked into a malpractice and fraud scandal. The colleague had all charges eventually dismissed, and he won all civil actions, but the publicity was devastating. Personally devastating. Professionally, his business increased, even during the time when he was still under suspicion but not exonerated. My friend’s assessment came down to “There’s no such thing as bad publicity. People knew they’d heard of him, but they didn’t know why, so he got more business on name recognition.”

Maybe correct, maybe not, but the principle is there. Certainly at some level, infamy becomes a burden, but it’s chilling to remember that Ted Bundy was getting marriage proposals up to the day he was executed.

One idea is to try to ignore the advertisers, attention grabbers, hate-mongers, and the rest, but that isn’t what I do in rubbernecking incidents. I try to deal with the surrounding effects. So maybe the answer is to ignore the originating factor and to concentrate on those who give their attention to it. Don’t attack the leaders or the spokesmen, attack the followers.

You read Ann Coulter? Why would you ever want to gawk at such a car wreck?

Spider Solitaire

In response to a comment by black dog barking:

Spider Solitaire is the Devil’s game.

I’m writing about the Windows version, though I’ve tried several other computer variants, and they’re pretty much as bad. Computer solitaire games are in an entirely different universe from the hard copy versions, not least being that they can keep statistics.

The skill-to-luck ratios of solitaires are pretty obvious. “Regular” solitaire, Klondike, in other words, is pretty much a matter of luck, except when you miss a play. There are a few choices during the game, but most often, there is no way to determine whether or not which choice is best. In the Windows (and most other) implementations, the “undo” is severely limited.

Freecell is much more a matter of skill, and most games are winnable. But it’s a full information game, which means that luck mostly doesn’t come in to it, and there’s a ceiling. You can only get so good at Freecell, and most people can get that good, or pretty nearly. You can also replay the same hand, over and over, and they’re numbered in the Windows version, so you can tell your friends about specific deals. At least one of them is unwinnable, I forget the number, but it can be found if you do a web search for it.

Spider has a huge amount of “top,” room to get better and better. It took me probably 20 or 30 games at the beginning before I won my first game at the highest difficulty level, where all four suits are used. Of course, that was before I began to really use the “undo” function. Without the undo, I eventually got a win statistic of slightly less than 10%.

The undo changes that entirely. The Windows version has an undo function that is limited only by each deal from the stock (which happens 5 times per game), or when a suit is formed and moved off the tableau to the foundation. Sometimes forming a full suit can cause you to lose by leaving you in an untenable position, one that you could have gotten out of if you still had the lost suit to play with.

With liberal use of “undo” I can win about 45% of Spider Solitaire hands. But a friend told me that you can Save a game at the beginning, then keep playing the same game over and over again without it counting as a loss by just going to the Open Last Saved Game (“Replay Game” counts as a loss). You can use similar Save tricks to never enter a loss in the statistics, but that’s pointless. Replaying the same game until you either win, get tired of it, or convince yourself that it’s unwinnable, though, that’s a challenge.

I once played a game that had a bottleneck (no possible plays under ordinary conditions) on the third deal; I played it for an entire weekend and found a way to create a play on the third deal that won the game. Amy plays the two suit game and once hit a game that gave no plays on the final deal, which looks like an automatic loser. But it’s possible to put cards underneath the deal that put a dealt card in play (the cards underneath have to be the same suit in sequence so they can be moved as a whole). So I noted the final deal, then played to that final layout and beat it. I’ve done similar things in the four suited game.

I did compile a statistical run of over 400 games with 21 losses; the win statistics were 94%. And there were at least a couple of games in that run that I lost because I’d forgotten to Save the game at first. More recently, easing off my OCD a little, I win about 90%, because sometimes I just get tired and go to bed.

So, we have a really difficult game that rewards pattern recognition and logical thinking by giving a statistical score that other players can find mind boggling.

The Devil’s Game, I’m sure of it. I really should give it up.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ellie's Underwear

Okay, Ellie is not her real name, but she was something of a celebrity. I'm giving her a pseudonym for some reasons that will become obvious, and some for which there is no need to divulge. The bottom line, however, is that the story doesn't absolutely require you to know. Also, this was a long time ago.

So. What with one thing an another, and all of it being entirely and totally innocuous, I was in possession of some of Ellie's underwear and I needed to return it. Oh, all right, I'll mention that there had been a gathering of quite a few people, the gathering included a hot tub, and there was also a dryer that didn't work fast enough and she had to be somewhere before said dryer had finished with her underwear. You don't need to know any more, and, really, there's not that much else to know. Entirely and totally innocuous, remember?

Because of Ellie's celebrity status, she was sometimes asked to address groups of people, and it so happened that the most convenient time to see her next was at one such gathering. So I attended her talk, which was enjoyable in and of itself, and afterwards, I waited until the cluster of people around her dwindled down. In fact, there came a time when she was talking to a single fellow about something, I don't remember what, and that doesn't really matter either.

I seized upon the opportunity, walked up to her, and handed her a small paper sack. She smiled, nodded her thanks, and continued listening to whatever the guy was saying. However, the little transaction had distracted him.

"What's in the sack?" he asked, keeping his attention on her (the celebrity), but giving me just a little flickering glance.

"My underwear," she said, with a slight grin that I recall as simultaneously totally innocent, and (as you may imagine), just a little mischievous.

He blinked, and looked at me for a longer moment, and much more closely. I don't know how long it lasted, but for a while, he thought that I was a much cooler person than I really am, privy to secrets that he could only envy and never fully imagine.

Games People Play

During my sophomore year at RPI, I had a housing crisis. I’d moved out to some apartments fairly distant from the campus with a couple of guys, both of whom had cars, and I did not. Actually, one of them flunked out before the beginning of the year, so that left just the two of us, me dependent on him for transportation to and from campus. It was possible to walk the distance, but it was definitely not a fun thing to do when the air temp was hovering near zero, as it did a lot in Troy in the winter.

It also turned out that the two of us ceased hitting it off, something that can happen when you go from being a buddy to a roommate. That’s part of the “education” thing that we hear so much about.

Anyway, long, painful, and somewhat embarrassing story short, in mid-winter I moved out, to a place nearer to campus, on Hoosick Street.

The Hoosick house had been a fraternity and some locals had bought it after said fraternity moved out, with the idea of making it into student housing. I’m pretty sure they hadn’t taken the flunkout factor into account, so when I moved in, there was plenty of room. I got what had been a double room all to myself. The other guys in the place had mostly come from my freshman dorm; that’s how I knew them. So it was back to semi-communal living, only this time with kitchen privileges.

There was a fair amount of mischief to be had in a place like that, and I had some of it, and watched some other people engage in it, and formed my opinions as to which mischief was safer than the other sorts. Good stuff to know. Also, that was the spring of 1970, when Kent State happened, and all other sorts of hell broke loose, so no one was paying attention to the more benign ways of being naughty.

So, loud music, soft drugs, alcohol (the legal drinking age was 18 in NY at the time, so that wasn’t even illegal), various girls running around at odd times, (though not nearly as often as salacious or puritanical minds would like to think), those were some of the activities. Also, there were the ice hockey games in the back yard, in which I did not participate, and the card games in the living room, in which I did.

One was the standard collegiate bridge game: the one that starts sometime on Friday afternoon, and finishes up sometime Monday morning, with no break as such, just people shifting in and out of it. I played fairly intensively for a while, then I gave it up.

I gave it up when I realized that, if I continued to play, all that would happen was that I’d become better at bridge. And nothing else. All playing bridge was doing for me was making me better at playing bridge. Bridge is just a game. So I quit.

On the other hand, there were also poker games, and poker isn’t just a game. Poker deals with probability, deception, and money. Poker is like life. Later, I took up poker on a regular basis, in an attempt to improve my skill at deception, to mediocre results. That has nothing to do with my appreciation for poker, however.

The poker games at the Hoosick house did suffer from the fact that “dealer’s choice” often wound up being some wild card game or another, like baseball where threes and nines are wild. It was about that time that I formulated my rule that any game where a royal flush can lose isn’t poker, and I don’t want to play.

I’ve come to divide games into “just games,” “good games” and “great games.” Like I said, bridge is just a game, though there is a social aspect to it, and if the company is good, it can be a good game. To be sure, some bridge terms are common parlance, like “trump,” “finesse,” and “slam,” but those terms are adapted to bridge; they don’t originate there. Contrast that to poker, where “bluff” originates, along with “busted flush” “inside straight” “ace-in-the-hole” and others. Great games leave their mark on the language, and they leave their mark on lives.

There’s a long standing dispute between chess and go enthusiasts over which is the better, or more profound, game. Both are great games. Chess is complicated, while go is complex. That’s the way I’d put it. But learning either (or both) will sharpen your wits as well as teaching you something about yourself, your opponent, and the very idea of opponent.

From out in left field, I came across a game that’s definitely a good game, and it may be a great game, but I haven’t seen enough examples of it to be sure. It’s a variant of Monopoly, sometimes called Auction Monopoly. In this variant, when you land on a piece of property that is un-owned, it goes up for auction, with the minimum bid being the board-listed price.

Oddly enough, the auction rule dates back to the predecessor of Monopoly, which was called The Landlord’s Game. It was designed and patented by one Elizabeth Magie (thank you, Wikipedia!), based on the economic theories of Henry George, old Mr. Single Tax himself.

With the single rule change, you get a vastly different game from standard Monopoly, because the auction sucks all the money out of circulation pretty quickly. At that point, a serious deflation settles into the game, and prices would drop – except for the price controls, which render most property too expensive for purchase. The first time someone lands on Boardwalk, for example, it almost invariably goes without sale. No one has enough money left to buy it. On the other hand, the winner is usually whoever manages to get the monopoly on Baltic and Mediterranean.

If you allow other rule changes, rules that inject money back into the game again have major consequences (re-inflating the currency), and so forth. I’ve often wondered whether there are other rule changes that would allow for things like fraud, corruption, market bubbles, and so forth, but that’s probably more suitable for computer games, which I seldom play, except for the demon-spawn Spider Solitaire.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Belting Out

Contract work is often a bit like the old Mission Impossible TV show: the Team is built around The Mission, which usually is subject to impossible constraints and the Team Members all bounce around trying to keep the makeup from slipping, and waiting for the Secretary to disavow all knowledge, etc.

And you get to meet management consultants, each and every one of them fully buzzword compliant and using all the fashionable tools to appear like they can actually deliver on whatever weird fever dream was sold to the organization that hired them. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, eh?

Anyway, one of the current fashions is Black Belts. There are Six Sigma Black Belts, Lean Black Belts, Process Management Black Belts, PFD Black Belts, and who knows what else. I just saw one business card that asserted the holder was a Master Black Belt, though it didn’t stipulate in what. Probably Six Sigma; I think that’s where this PR trick began, and, wouldn't you know it, it was a General Electric thing. There are, incidentally, also Green Belts in these things. I’m just glad they didn’t go for the whole rainbow, Yellow, Green, Blue, Brown, etc.

It’s the general opinion in at least my little stretch of the martial arts community that colored belts are mostly PR. It’s not like there is any licensing board that sets standards for the things. Anybody can hang out a shingle and award any colored belt to anyone they like, and many martial arts schools take the route of awarding lots of promotions quickly as a way of enticing students.

I can only report directly from Aikido, though I’ve had plenty of friends in other arts. For that matter, there are enough versions of Aikido that I can’t speak universally even for that one art. But generally speaking, my fellow Aikidoka don’t speak much of belt colors. For adults, it’s either white or black (In the first dojo to which I belonged, over 25 years ago, there were a few students who were informally given brown belts, but I haven’t seen that practice in over 20 years). The “black belts” are referred to as yudansha, and the first dan grade, shodan, basically means that the holder is now taken as a serious student of the art. There is also a tradition of beginning to wear a hakima (a sort of long black culotte), after promotion to shodan unless one’s sensei says to wear it sometime earlier. One of my fellow students once compared wearing a hakima to painting a big target on one’s back at seminars. It is certainly expected that someone wearing a hakima knows his/her limits in ukemi (having an aikido technique applied to you and surviving it unharmed).

And, of course, shodan (first dan grade) is only the beginning. Then there is nidan, sandan, yondan, and on up, though it gets mighty sparse above that. By the time you get to 5th and 6th dan, (godan and ryokudan) you might as well just give people’s names, since their art has become intensely personalized by then, and there are sufficiently few of them that everyone knows everyone else, more or less, and the differences in numerical rank become less important than their place in the community. More to the point, at that level, teaching is the important service, with Sensei (any teacher), Shidoin (instructor), Fuku Shidoin (assistant instructor), and Shihan (master instructor, or “teacher of teachers”) being the appellations.

I don’t really have a punch line (as it were) for these musings, except to maybe be glad that the Japanese terms haven’t been swiped as management consulting buzzwords. I don’t think I’d react very well to meeting a “Six Sigma Shihan.”

In case anyone is wondering, I began Aikido practice in 1980 at what was then called Aikido of Berkeley under Steve Sasaki Sensei. I had to quit in 1985, for health reasons, and I did not return to practice until 2000, at Eastshore Aikikai, under Elizibeth Lynn Sensei. I was promoted to shodan in the fall of 2005. It's a tradition to give certain promotions at the time of the New Year, and my promotion to nidan has just been announced.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Bingo from Bingville

There was a PBS special on Bing Crosby the other night, and Dave mused a bit about how was it that Crosby has become so extraordinarily famous and successful. I blurted, "Because Bing Crosby changed everything."

A bit hyperbolic perhaps, but not as much as you might think. I've been listening to quite a bit of early Bing Crosby lately, courtesy of the late Sheryl Smith's jazz collection, and it has been a revelation. A few months ago, I would have probably shared Dave's puzzlement, as we both date from the time where Crosby's popularity was somewhat like the Cheshire Cat's smile, the remaining glow of a much larger animal.

The first thing is that, before Crosby, no professional singer had ever sounded like that before.

The change was technology driven. The microphone itself was invented along with the telephone, in the 1870s, and voice broadcast radio first appeared in 1906, but the first commercial station came in 1920. The Edison cylinder phonograph dates from 1877, but the Berliner gramophone is ten years later. The early phonographs/gramophones were purely mechanical acoustic devices.

The first electronic public address systems date from 1921. In 1925, the whole shebang came together with radio microphones and vacuum tube amplifiers added to phonograph technology in the Orthophonic system from Bell Labs.

Bing Crosby's first record, "I've Got the Girl," was in 1926, using the older, non-electronic phonograph recording system, a carbon microphone connected to direct mechanical cutting. Every subsequent recording he made was with electronically amplified technology.

Before Crosby, every professional singer in the world needed to sing loud enough to fill a concert hall, or at least a night club. The troubadour might sing softly to his lady, and Uncle Phil might have a terrific voice for the gathering around the home piano, but they'd never make it in show biz. Crosby was the first singer who didn't have to sing loud. A new word was invented: crooner.

And he had the voice for it, a rich and expressive baritone that could dive into the deep bass range when he wanted to. Listening to his early recordings, where he is breaking away from the then-conventional vocal style into this new thing, is a revelation.

The next thing is that Crosby was a jazz singer, something that is less front-and-center in his later work, although he was working with Louis Armstrong pretty much as long as they could both manage it. Crosby loved (and copied from) Armstrong, and the two of them were a mutual admiration society as well as an ongoing force for integration in popular music during thier careers.

In the aforementioned documentary, there's a film clip of him singing "Don't Fence Me In." He uses some very subtle vocal syncopation in his phrasing. It reminds me, weirdly, of Cab Calloway more than Armstrong. Calloway created breaks in the normal lyrical flow and then frequently filled them with incidentals and scat vocals. Crosby sometimes uses the syncopation for sliding one note into another, or just to allow the music to play through, a more minimalist approach. But don't forget that he created his own scat style, the often parodied "buh, buh, boo."

Starring Bing Crosby: Accentuate the Positive and Don't Fence Me In

Cab Calloway: Jumping Jive

How many male vocalists in the following generation were influenced by Crosby? I'm tempted to say, "all of them." Even the ones that continued the "belt it out" style would go crooner once in a while. Sinatra was Crosby as a tenor. Dean Martin was just trying to be Crosby. Even Elvis was doing Crosby when he did ballads. Now that I've pointed it out, just try listening to "Love Me Tender" and not hear Crosby's influence.

So, recording artist, then radio star. Then Crosby conquered the movies, both as a leading man and as part of Hope and Crosby, the most successful comedy team of the era. The Wikipedia article informs me that he is the number three male box office star ever, in terms of tickets sold.

And, of course, there is "White Christmas," (from the movie Holiday Inn; the motel chain took its name from the movie, not the other way around), and "Silent Night" (from Going My Way). "White Christmas" is the highest selling single recording in history.

Crosby, like Bob Hope, outlived his genius, and, to a degree, even his talent. But his celebrity was far too large to disappear. So he was condemned to Christmas and Family Specials into the 1960s and 70s. Look at some of the performances he gave in those and, while he was always the consummate professional, the sheer boredom that looks out from his eyes is almost tragic. He changed the world, and then he was just another guy on a Christmas show.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


I don’t call them “pet peeves.” I call them “things that annoy the hell out of me.” One of them is comparing the energy of high energy cosmic rays to a hard hit golf ball, and I'll perhaps explain why sometime. But the one that gets me every time is when someone is talking or writing about nitrous oxide and then says “NO2.”

If you want to go all British, it’s true that the generic Brit for nitrogen oxides is “nitrous oxides,” but that’s not what being referred to, for example, on the TV program Mythbusters, or any reference to nitrous either as a combustion booster (the “poor man’s supercharger”) or as a dental anesthetic / recreational drug. That is N2O, a notably different compound that comes in big blue tanks, because it’s an oxidizer. Also, because nitrous is slightly sweet and has a relatively low vapor pressure (because its critical temperature is about 35 C, it can be liquefied at room temperature) it’s used as a propellant for whipping cream.

If you compress NO2, you wind up with the dimmer N2O4, dinitrogen tetroxide, which dissociates back to NO2 on pressure release, producing toxic levels of NO2. It’s also a fine oxidizer, and will cause a lot of things to burn mighty fast. It is also somewhat self-oxidizing, which means that it can burn itself mighty fast, giving a good replica of an explosion.

Nitrous oxide, N2O, is also a good oxidizing agent, hence its use in auto racing (or in the movie Road Warrior). It just drops the oxygen atom off the nitrogen molecule and away we go. And since the bottle doesn’t need to be at high pressure, it’s safer than using compressed oxygen. Both compressed oxygen and N2O can be a little dangerous if there's anything like grease in your line, however.

Nitrous is a pretty good greenhouse gas, and it’s also a source of nitrogen oxides in the stratosphere. Usually the photolysis of ozone just give what’s called the “triplet state” of the oxygen atom that cleaves off the O3, but if it’s hit with short wave UV (down below about 290 nm), it give a more energetic form of oxygen radical called the “singlet state.” These have electrons in the p and d orbits respectively, so the shorthand is O3p and O1d, pronounced “Oh triplet p” and “Oh singlet d” respectively.

Most of the time, O1d just bounces around until an inelastic collision drops it back to O3p, but not always. In the troposphere, the most common reactive fate of O1d is reaction with water vapor, to give two hydroxyl radicals:

O1d + H2O -> OH + OH

But water is scarce in the stratosphere, and O1d is more plentiful (because there’s more short wave UV. Sometimes the O1d runs into a molecule of N2O and you get nitric oxide:

O1d + N2O -> NO + NO

Whitten once had a very clever idea for measuring the amount of short wave UV in the UNC outdoor smog chamber that involved pumping some 20 pounds of N2O into the chamber along with a lot of acetaldehyde and ozone. The ozone absorbed the shortwave UV, which reacted with the N2O. The resulting NO got sucked up by peroxyacetyl radicals that had been formed from the normal smog chemistry reactions from the acetaldehyde and the amount of PAN that was formed was a quantitative measure of O1d formation. In essence the whole shebang had become a giant actinometer. Very cool, and it happened to match the light models that UNC had been using to estimate UV in their chamber, so everyone went home happy, though a few of them were disappointed that they hadn’t been allowed to sample the nitrous.

The recreational use of nitrous is not exactly illegal, but it is discouraged. Most automotive nitrous is sold “sour,” with added sulfur dioxide to make huffing unpleasant. One the other hand, “whippets,” for use on whipping cream dispensers can be bought in stores all across the land. Whippet nitrous is mighty expensive, but I’ve seen people walking down the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans with little balloon dispensers that take a whippet charge. Those dispensers used to be sold in “head shops” before somebody figured out how to harass them out of existence.

There are, of course, dangers involved in using nitrous recreationally, not getting enough oxygen being one of them. That was one significant problem at the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver a couple of decades ago (when nitrous abuse was much more common than it is now). People used to sea level air found themselves passing out and falling off their chairs. There’s also a known, long-term danger to nitrous use/abuse, in that it causes a vitamin B12 related “die off” of nerves in the peripheral nervous system. Those do grow back, but over-exposure to nitrous can get ahead of the ability to regenerate. And various neurological problems result. This has mostly been reported in anesthesiologists, who sometimes get a high background dose of nitrous even without an abuse syndrome, though the case I read of the dentist who used to take 2-6 hour “naps” under an N2O/O2 mix probably counts as abuse,

The biggest bang for the buck is nitrous by the tank full, in either medical/dental or metallurgical grade. There was a time when the “typical Bay Area SF Convention party” featured one or more large nitrous tanks. A few time I brought along another tank filled with helium, and those of us who were dispensing gas made people ask for the nitrous by first inhaling a balloon full of helium.

That wasn’t how nitrous came to be called “laughing gas,” but it should have been. Those times are long gone now, but that doesn’t stop me from eyeing the empty can of whipped cream from time to time. It’s out of cream, but sometimes there’s just enough gas left in it for a little whiff of nostalgia.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Anyone who knows me, as well as anyone who has been paying attention to these essays here, can attest to the fact that I don't score very high on the false modesty scale. Most would even suggest that I don't score very high on any kind of modesty scale.

So when I say that I'm a pretty minor SF writer, you can believe me. I could do all sorts of handsprings to compare myself with those who have been even less successful than I, but what's the point? There are probably hundreds of thousands of "aspiring writers" in the land, maybe more, and most will never even get past that creative writing course, much less a sale or two to a tertiary market, paying in "fresh fruit and contributors copies," to quote my first agent. But one doesn't compare the minor league baseball player to everyone who ever played ball in high school, or even everyone who every tried out for the minor leagues. A minor leaguer is a minor leaguer because they don't play in the major leagues. Hence the "minor" part.

So: two published novels, an undisclosed number of portion and outline proposals, an unpublished Venus trilogy that I was compelled to write for reasons unknown, plus a few dozen short stories, of which maybe half are published. It's a minor contribution to the field, but if I had not written those works, no one else would have.

Then there is the money angle. There are a lot of ways to parse it, and one of them I've mentioned previously. I've done a bit of work-for-hire writing, which turns out to have paid more (for less labor) than the works for which I hold the copyrights. However, had it not been for the novels and short stories in magazines, I'd have never gotten the work-for-hire gigs, nor would it have been as easy to make the jump from unemployed smog scientist to employed technical writer. Nevertheless, discounting the tech writing career, the total I've made from both the free lance and work-for-hire writing has amounted to somewhere around a year's income, give or take, and remembering that I've had some good years and some truly dreadful ones, and it's sometimes hard to adjust for inflation, etc.

But this is just to segue into a reminder that money isn't the sole judge of merit and worth, though I'll stipulate that if I'd made more money writing SF, I'd have written more of it. You can use money to buy time, and that's an important thing about money.

Let's flip that around, though. We're on the tail end of SF publishing, though maybe not the tail end of SF writing. What that means is that, while the number of book titles has gone up over the past few decades, sales per book have dropped substantially. Moreover, the number of pages per book has also increased substantially, such that a typical SF paperback is now at least twice the length of what it was in, say, the 1950s. Furthermore, sales figures in the 1950s were more than an order of magnitude higher than now, both for novels and the magazines (i.e. the primary venue for short stories). So any given published author in the 1950s reached an audience that was, at a minimum, well into five figures, and not infrequently into six figures or even low seven, even for authors who failed to make "best seller" status.

Now let's subtract money from the equation. What do we have left?

Every book or story takes a certain amount of time to write, and takes a range of times to read, depending upon the reading speed of the reader, and what we can call the "readability" of the book. Obviously a book takes a longer to write than to read, although it's sobering to remember that some writers write at full typing speed, and their full typing speed can be mighty fast. Still, the difference between writing time and reading time is pretty large, and if we toss in the re-reading, revision, proofreading, etc., the disparity become inevitable, even for a rapid writer and a slow reader.

Still, there is also a big disparity between the number of writers and the number of readers, at least for mass market works. Here I am, minor SF writer, remember, and lacking good sales figures on most of my works, but I do know that my first novel sold around 15,000 copies, because they had to go to a second printing, and they had to pay me some more money. I suspect that this was because the publishing house was undergoing an SFWA audit at the time, and wouldn't some more of those be a good thing?

In any case, Book of Shadows (no relation) clocked in at about 70,000 words (editorially trimmed from the original 80,000). It's a bit hard to say how much time I put into the writing of it, since part of it was, shall we say, a "learning experience," taking place over a number of years. More recently, however, I have enough information in how long it takes me (now) to write fiction, and I can crank about 2500 words in a four-hour writing day, which is about how long it take before my brains turn to jelly. Other writers are much faster; some are much slower.

The numbers on this are suspect, of course, since it implies that I can write a 100,000 word novel in 40 days; call it two months of regular work. But as I say, plenty of writers are faster. In the days of the pulps, there were a number of "million worders" who churned out more than a million words a year for quite a few years, and they were using manual typewriters. The trick is to have that much to write about and that many stories to tell. But that's not an issue for someone like me; I have far more stories I'd like to write than time to write them. On the other hand, this doesn't count the time for research, plotting, revision, etc. So everything I say here is ballpark numbers.

For SunSmoke, the matter is even more complicated. I don't have good sales figures, for one thing, and for another, I sold the novelette version first, to Asimov's, and more people read that 15,000 words than the novel, which is three times as long. There is also the matter of "pass around" and used books, and so forth.

But let's pretend that BoS had only the 15,000 readers, and that it took each one an average of three hours to read it (probably low, at 300 wpm, it would take about four hours). That's 45,000 hours of reading, compared to 100-200 hours of writing. Even averaging only 2 written words a minute, it would only have taken 600 hours to write. We're talking hundreds of reader hours for every hour of writing time.

Heck, even here on this blog, checking the page hits and time spent on page, and you folks are spending two or three times as much time reading as I spend on the writing of it.

Reading is not a passive activity. There is real effort involved, and real imagination expended in processing the words to get at a story. The story is different for every reader, often substantially different, and surprising to the writer. Sometimes the writer may even be appalled at what the reader gets from the story, but that's the biz, sweetheart.

Intellectual property laws allow the writer to "own" the story, but it's really a collaboration between writer and reader, in fact, a large number of collaborations, sometimes more than one per reader, even. Some writers (and owners of other forms of intellectual property) believe that they own everything, even what goes on in other people's heads. Put that way it doesn't seem right, does it? But writers are clever folk. We can come up with much better ways of putting it, ways that always make us out to be the heroes.


My sister was born when I was not yet three, so I have no memory of the event. My mother tells me that my grandparents came down to visit and assist during that time, and when she was at the hospital, my grandfather, who I called "Grampa," took me out and bought me some cowboy boots. I'm told I was mighty proud of those boots, and my little feller pride of ownership overwhelmed any other feelings I might have had about the arrival of my one and only sibling. I barely noticed that there was now someone else in the household, or at least I was oblivious for a goodly while.

Besides, Grampa was in town.

We were best buds, he and I. Whenever he was due to visit, I'd get excited for days, and tell all my friends that Grampa was coming. Alternately, when we made the visits to Stanford, Illinois, which took something like twelve hours in those pre-Interstate Highway days, part of the "are we there yet?" excitement was that Grampa was at the other end. We'd arrive and I'd make a beeline for him and he'd pick me up, or, if seated, I'd climb into his lap. In the summertime we'd play catch, and in the wintertime, card games, or maybe checkers. He also got a kick out seeing of me reading my cousin Melvin's comic books, this before I was even five, and I was reading the words, not just looking at the pictures. Of course, he'd also read to me.

For Christmas, when I was six, Grampa and Gramma gave me a bicycle, with training wheels. It was a gray day, just before a snowstorm, but I rode the thing up and down the block maybe half a dozen times before I came inside. Probably someone had to haul me in; I'd have stayed out until I froze, otherwise; I really loved that bike.

I really loved my Grampa, too, or so I'm told.

A few months after that Christmas, Grampa Killus died of a heart attack. He'd had congestive heart disease for some time before that. He was actually at his doctor's office during the onset of the attack, but he refused hospitalization, went home, and died between his car and the house. In those days, there wasn't all that much to do about a heart attack, and survivors usually wound up seriously debilitated. Fred Killus deliberately chose to die, more or less, rather than burden his family with the medical bills and the long lingering debility. Or maybe he just couldn't take the idea of spending his remaining life as an invalid. Or maybe he was just tired.

His funeral service was open casket. I have a clear memory of how he looked laid out like that, and of my sister, who was not yet four, perched on my father's shoulder, looking completely baffled by the whole affair. I remember wondering why I didn't feel very much at all. The phrase "grief councilor" did not yet exist, and I was far too young to know about things like repression.

With the exception of the bike ride and the funeral service, everything I've written here is from the reports of others. I do not remember a bit of it. Every memory I have of my grandfather is motionless, like a still photograph, or something once alive now frozen in a block of ice. I have no recollection of his voice, save one dim memory of him saying "Clubs are trump," during a game of Pinochle, which the adults played, but we kids did not.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Bah, Humbug

I think it was Ian Shoals (Merle Kessler) who noted that the plot used in every Christmas story has become, "Oh dear, it looks like we may not have Christmas this year; oh, wait, at the last moment, we can still have Christmas. Yay!"

My own opinion is that if the Grinch had pulled his trick on a real town with real people (instead of those insufferable Whos), they'd have tracked him down and waterboarded him until his green fur turned blue.

Christmas is so very American, though, isn't it? It's an orgy of consumerism with a religious sheen. Somewhere in the blizzard of commercials, Linus does the shepherds speech, and everyone gets all misty-eyed for a bit, then back to the shopping, because if the retailers don't have a good year, the whole economy will tank, or so I've been told.

There's an article in today's paper about various religious folk who are annoyed at the usual, the lack of full bore religious celebration/indoctrination in the holiday. But remember, these are the same folks who are annoyed that you can't force children to pray in public schools and who want to tattoo the Ten Commandments onto the stomachs of convicts.

Okay, I made that last one up. Mostly.

Criminey, it's not like the deal is a big secret. Christianity got mingled with the cult of Sol Invictus back in Roman times, and engulfed the Sun God rituals, including the solstice/rebirth thing. Partying during the darkest days of the year makes perfect sense; a bit of the nog and flirting (or more) with the neighbors can get you through the Seasonal Affect Disorder better than most things. Besides, it's cold out there and the more bodies, the warmer the cave. But a goodly part of it remains the Don't Go Out, part. Stay in and wait out the darkness.

Which I certainly do, although the rigors of leaving the house nowadays have more to do with not wanting to buck the traffic, fight the shoppers, or listen to "Little Drummer Boy" one more time on muzak.

Yeah, yeah, now I'll have someone talking to me about giving and sharing. Look, tossing a quarter into the Salvation Army bucket does not make up for rounding up and deporting undocumented immigrants so they won't burden the health care system. Moreover, in case you haven't noticed, a good many people use gifts as a control measure. "He's making a list and checking it twice" has a nice truthful ring to it. Step out of line and no presents for you, child.

Then there's the football. Lordy, there is the football. I know that football is a season, but it certainly seems like it gets compressed into the week between Christmas and New Years. It's all those damn college bowl games added to the mix, I expect. There's another tangent I could go off on in a second: college football. Another orgy of commerce with a thin patina, this time of higher education. Feh.

This one I'm sure came from Merle: “Football players, like prostitutes, are in the business of ruining their bodies for the pleasure of strangers”

The other one is from George Will: "Football incorporates the two worst elements of American society: violence punctuated by committee meetings."

Ebenezer Scrooge wasn't a creep because he despised Christmas. He was a creep because he was a shrunken souled miser who refused to pay a decent wage to his employee. But he did have some pretty cool hallucinations, and maybe that's all I really want for Christmas: cooler hallucinations.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Dust Explosions

Dust Explosion in a Coal Mine

There are two kinds of sparks. One kind is the electrical spark, where a potential charge bridges the gap between two conductors. Electrical sparks span the range from that little flash you see when you touch the door knob after walking across the carpet when the air is dry, to the lightning flash caused by clouds playing with themselves.

The other kind of spark is basically a small particle burning in air. Those are the ones you see coming off of the campfire, or when you strike flint. One of the fun things to do with the old Gilbert Chemistry set is to take some of the iron filings and shake a few into the flame of the alcohol lamp. Or you can make a paste of some iron filings, potassium nitrate, charcoal, and a starch binder. Put it on a stick, let it dry and you have sparklers. Alternately, you can just drive to the nearest store that has a 50 foot sign that says !!!!FIREWORKS!!!! and just buy a few.

People don’t usually think of iron as something that burns, because most of the iron we deal with every day won’t. Very few solids will actually burn in ordinary air (air under pressure, pure oxygen, chlorine, fluorine, etc. are another matter). Wood, for example, emits combustible gases when heated, so wood burns by what is a complex, multistage process. Charcoal is similar; it has to be very hot, and then the carbon combines with oxygen to make CO, and the CO is what burns in a charcoal flame (which you mostly don’t want, since you’d rather have hot charcoal embers). Moreover, and this is very important, charcoal is porous, so it has a large surface area.

One of the most important features of physical geometry is the cube-square law. This is the recognition that, as things get larger, they have proportionally more volume to surface area (or any other two dimensional feature such as cross section). That’s because, as things get larger, their surface area changes as the square of linear dimension, while the volume increases as a cube, so volume goes up faster. Conversely, as things get smaller, surface effects begin to get more and more important. Chemical reactions between two different substances can only occur where the substances touch each other; for a solid and a gas, that is at the surface of the solid.

So oxidation of a bulk solid takes place at its surface, and, for big objects, that tends to be pretty slow. So iron slowly oxidizes on its surface to form rust. Because rust is porous and crumbly (that being because iron oxide is much bigger than the original iron), rust is progressive and will slowly rust the whole piece of iron. Aluminum, on the other hand, forms a tough oxide film on its surface, and that protects the rest of the aluminum from oxidation.

Chop a metal bar into fine enough pieces, however, and the dynamic changes. Iron filings will oxidize much more rapidly than if they were in an iron bar. Moreover, the oxidation rate increases with temperature. Heat the filings enough and the oxidation will take off and the whole filing will rapidly burn: a spark. You can also burn ordinary steel wool, incidentally.

Chop your particles even further and they will get to the size where they can be suspended in air. Get the right mix of combustible particles and air, and the burning can coordinate itself into a self-propagating flame front. Confine the particles in an enclosure and you can get a dust explosion.

I’ve been talking about iron particles, but any combustible material will do, and the most common types of dust explosions are in coal mines and in granaries and flour mills. The coal mine part seems pretty obvious, but people don’t usually think of flour as an explosive or even as combustible. Strictly speaking flour isn’t explosive; it’s just that, under the right conditions, it can burn rapidly enough in a confined space to cause what is called a “pressure burst” explosion. In other words, under the right conditions, a grain elevator can become a pipe bomb.

Grain elevators used to protect against dust buildup by rapid ventilation. That, however, sometimes caused local air quality problems, violations of the ambient air quality standards for particulate matter. So ventilation was reduced, and air filters were added, and sometimes the air filters weren’t maintained as properly as they should, so bang.

Actually, the dust filters themselves were sometimes a problem, since they concentrated the dust in a small space, and sometimes the filter itself would have a dust explosion. Sometimes, because the filter contained a lot of previously collected dust, a minor filter explosion would push the contained dust into a larger volume, and then a larger, secondary explosion would result.

That’s a specific example of the more general problem in dust explosions: secondary explosions. Often the amount of dust in the air was fairly small in comparison to the amount of settled dust in a container, or in a coal mine, or whatever. The first, small explosion would shake the area enough to push a lot more dust into suspension, and then that dust would ignite and cause the much larger pressure burst. In some ways, the geometry of the situation resembles that in a CVCC engine, where a small ignition chamber shoots a flame front into a larger combustion chamber. Only in the case of a flour mill or coal mine, the primary ignition also mixes the fuel with in the larger chamber.

There’s a standard educational lab demonstration that uses a pipe or small container, a funnel attached to an air hose, some flour and a candle to demonstrate dust explosions. A more dramatic demonstration of the secondary explosion effect would be to put a pan of flour on top of the first pipe, and have the pan shoot the flour into the air in a larger volume, like a shipping container perhaps. However, that might be a little rough on the shipping container.

Besides, I don’t want to give anyone ideas. The day that bags of flour are viewed as the tools of terrorists is the day that I’m packing my bags for New Zealand.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


(Left, photo from Bodybuilding Fanatic)
(Right, photo © Copyright 2003 Chris Gulker)

Mystery solved.

I was baffled at first. I have Google Analytics installed on this blog, and it was telling me that no less than a third of the hits I was getting was on the essay on Robert Mapplethorpe. Okay, fair enough. If you want a lot of traffic on your blog, put up a photo of a gorgeous woman wearing only a snake.

But what really got me was that if I went to Google Images and put in "Lisa Lyons," my essay came up right at the top of the list, despite the fact that I was hot-linking the image from another web site.

Well, to my acute embarrassment, it seems that it's a good idea to spell the name right. It's "Lisa Lyon" not "Lisa Lyons." I am chagrined and apologetic to Ms. Lyon, and will try to do right by her forthwith.

The histories I can find on the Lady give the story that she took up weightlifting and bodybuilding in order to assist in her practice of kendo, then won the first World Women's Bodybuilding Championship in Los Angeles in 1979. That, plus guest posing at a number of other bodybuilding competitions that year, put her on the pop culture map. She appeared on talk shows, describing herself as a performance artist and body sculptor. Was this the first use of the phrase, or was it first applied to the likes of Schwarzenegger et al.?

In any case, Lyon sponsored a bodybuilding competition in 1980, Lisa Lyon's United States Bodybuilding Championships, which was won by Rachel McLish (photo at right), who also won the first Miss Olympia competition, which was part of the more established network that organized men's bodybuilding competitions.

There's an interview with Doris Barrilleaux, another of the pioneers in women's bodybuilding that fails to mention Lyon at all, which is interesting, and probably revealing, but I can think of too many different explanations for the omission, and I'm going to leave all speculation to my readers on this one.

Lyon connected with Robert Mapplethorpe in the early 1980s, and Lady was published in 1983. It was quite a revelation, to both the art world and the world of popular culture, including bodybuilding. Lyon was clearly exactly what she claimed to be: a performance artist, who could project a hundred different moods through the photographer's lens.

The story then gets stranger still. Lyon met John C. Lilly, the counter-culture hero, talker-to-dolphins, and inventor of the sensory deprivation tank. She wound up on the board of advisors to Lilly's Association for Cultural Evolution, and more than that, she became one of his four adopted children (if that is the right phrase; all four were adopted as adults).

Ah, doesn't the imagination runs riot here? Lilly wrote extensively about altered consciousness, and regularly used both LSD and ketamine to achieve some of those altered states. (Quick aside: the movie Altered States was inspired by Lilly, as was Day of the Dolphin).

When drugs enter the narrative, the narrative becomes all about the drugs. With Lisa Lyon, sex was already front and center in the narrative (woman wearing snake, remember?), so the narrative hits a pretty turbulent air pocket, right about here, doesn't it? Nor does it help matters that one finds references to Lyon being just out of a psychiatric institution at about the time of Mapplethorpe's death in 1989.

Maybe this all amounts to some sort of flameout, but I'm not buying into it. Lilly entitled his autobiography, Center of the Cyclone. I'm thinking that Lyon was more like a cyclone all by herself. When there is a zeitgeist, there is bound to be a lot of geist during the zeit.

Lisa Lyon and Patti Smith

Saturday, December 22, 2007

My Star Trek Novel

Back in the mid-80s, when it looked like I might have a real career in SF (a major illness took care of that fantasy), I wrote a portion-and-outline of a Star Trek novel. It’s around in my files somewhere, but I’m going to reproduce the gist of it from memory. This was, incidentally, before any of the Trek follow-ons, so it was Classic Trek.

The story opens with the Enterprise getting multiple sensor alarms from what, after some investigation, turns out to be an object moving at some ungodly warp number, but rapidly decelerating. Given such rapid slowing, it only takes Enterprise a week to reach the vessel. When they finally arrive, they find the shape of a giant Conestoga Wagon, with what looks like “Antares or Bust” painted on its side.

It turns out to be a ship with “morphing” capabilities; it can change its shape at the whim of its captain, who is the only person on the ship, in fact.

The captain’s name is Tom, and he’s a Vulcan inventor. In fact, he’s pretty much Vulcan’s only inventor, which used to puzzle him. So he looked into the matter and came to the conclusion that the Vulcan education methods for controlling emotion had become so restrictive that they were stifling curiosity, imagination, etc. Therefore, he set out to find a way to reverse the damage,

Tom devised a method using conditioning, meditation, and other things (“Drugs?” asks McCoy. “Oh yes,” says Tom. “Lots of drugs"). When it was completed, he’d increased his inventive productivity, imagination, etc. as well as gaining a sense of humor. Unfortunately, it was a somewhat compulsive and adolescent sense of humor, and, among other things, it came out as practical jokes. After he gave a hot foot to a high Vulcan official, he was prosecuted for arson and criminal insanity. He fled the planet, so now he’s on the run.

Owing to vagaries in interstellar law, he’s not under any sort of Federation warrant, (the Vulcan Authorities do not want the details of the crimes made known, as one might expect) so Kirk allows Tom to make use of the docking facilities on the Enterprise to repair his craft. Spock assists, in hopes of learning some of the new drive technology etc. Besides the Vulcan repression thing is of importance to him personally.

A few days later, a Vulcan battle cruiser shows up and begins pacing the Enterprise. They can’t demand that Tom be handed over, because he’s broken no Federation Laws. But as soon as he leaves the ship…

After repairing his ship, Tom creates a distraction: a computer generated “entertainment” in the form of an old minstrel show, with Spock as Mr. Interlocutor, and Bones as, well, Mr. Bones. There is song and dance. There are jokes. It is all quite confusing to the Vulcans who are listening in. It’s fairly confusing to the humans on the Enterprise. The minstrel show allows a discussion of historical racism on Earth, and how it’s such a good thing that We’re Past That Now.

Tom uses the distraction to launch his repaired craft from the Enterprise. The Vulcan ship gives chase and fires a phaser beam at him.

It turns out that one of Tom’s inventions is a new kind of ship's shield, an “energy sponge,” that converts attacking energy (like the phaser blast), into ship’s power and motive force. The power of the Vulcan ship’s attack refuels Tom’s craft and he disappears in a burst of warp speed. The last, lingering signal from his craft is a sound like a bottle being rapidly stoppered and unstoppered, and a single “Beep, beep.”

In the coda, Kirk learns that Tom has given Spock the recipe for de-repression. Spock does not believe he can safely use or divulge it while still a Star Fleet Officer, but he will retire someday…

My agent sent in the Portion and Outline to whoever was editing the Star Trek novels at the time. We got back a rejection letter that said that the proposed novel was contrary to absolutely everything that had ever been said about Vulcans in the series or in the tie-in novels. Apparently, for once, I hadn’t been subtle enough.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Methyl tertiary butyl ether is what is known as an “oxygenated hydrocarbon.” For reasons that still weren’t clear the last time I checked, oxygenated hydrocarbons alter the combustion characteristics of gasoline in an internal combustion engine such that combustion is more complete and in particular, carbon monoxide is reduced. Carbon monoxide incidents are more numerous in winter (because atmospheric ventilation rates are lower), so oxygenated fuel additives have been mandated for winter gasoline blends.

Oxygenated hydrocarbons are also generally octane boosters. In fact, ethanol, the alternative oxygenate to MTBE, was originally considered promising as an octane additive in the early days of the automobile. One story as to why tetra ethyl lead became the gasoline octane additive of choice is that ethyl could be patented, while ethanol could not. Another suggestion is simply that ethanol is not generally made from oil, and oilmen didn’t want it in gasoline for that reason.

For whatever reason, I can say from personal experience that the attitude toward ethanol among managers in the petroleum industry is very close to foam-at-the-mouth psychotic. They really, really, hate ethanol. MTBE, on the other hand, is made by the oil and gas industry (from natural gas to methanol to MTBE), and oilmen loved it.

From an environmental standpoint, you could say that MTBE is good for the air and bad for the water. Specifically, MTBE, like ethers generally, is water soluble, and will move into groundwater pretty easily. It also has a characteristic flavor and odor, which is apparently detectable (and unpleasant) in very small concentrations in drinking water.

None of this information is new; it was certainly well known 25 years ago, when MTBE was first being touted as an “environmentally friendly” additive to gasoline. It was, from the start, a big part of the “reformulated gasoline” initiative, whose intent was to bring some environmental awareness kudos to the gasoline industry, and, incidentally, to create a bit of a refinery squeeze to drive some independent filling stations and chains out of the market, or to at least bring them into line.

But everyone was aware of the potential problem of groundwater contamination, especially from leaks in service stations’ underground storage tanks. In fact, the industry had an answer to this problem: double walled storage tanks. There was a certain amount of underground leak contamination anyway, and this was touted as the solution to it. And again, it had the additional benefit of being expensive enough that it would drive some marginal independent stations out of business, again squeezing the supply chain.

So the idea was to retrofit the storage tanks before MTBE was adopted. Unfortunately this didn’t happen. While one part of the petroleum industry was confidently lobbying to put MTBE in, and it won’t be a problem because we’ll have underground tanks to keep the stuff from leaking, another part of the industry was lobbying to delay, delay, delay the storage tank replacement program, because it would cost them money. Often you had lobbyists from the same company arguing both cases, though, it should be admitted, rarely on the same day, or at least not to the same people.

So that, more or less, is how Santa Monica came to lose 70% of its drinking water to MTBE contamination, why Santa Barbara had to spend millions on a new water treatment plant, and why a lot of people across the land came to be really pissed. It also played a role in the current fad for ethanol fuels (I give that one another two or three years, tops) but that's a story for another day.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Handicapping the Horse Race

The purpose of propaganda is not to get people to believe in lies; the purpose of propaganda is to murder the idea of truth.

Mission accomplished. The general public now understands that one cannot believe a single thing that is said by any candidate ever, at any time. This has been accomplished not just by a series of broken political promises—that more or less goes with the territory. But the news media and journalistic establishment have connived in the reduction of politics to pure propaganda, calling some politicians liars for having said things that they never said (e.g. Al Gore inventing the Internet), and letting flagrant lies from other politicians pass without comment, save for the "others disagree" squib in the next to last paragraph of the article.

That leaves us with the idea that "character" and "image" are the only important factors to use in evaluating candidates. So let's have at it.

Huckabee is running as a fundamentalist preacher. That seems to be working. Giuliani is running as the biggest bastard on the block. That seems to sell pretty well also.

Romney is having trouble because he can't convince the Republican base that he's not a Mormon. That is the only thing that will work for him, BTW; convincing the base that the LDS aren't a satanic cult is simply impossible. Thompson has lost the "I play one on television" mojo, so now he's just an old guy with a hot wife, and Kucinich might win the Republican nomination (despite his being a Democrat and all) if that were the standard. It just depends on whether you like blonds or redheads, although Kucinich's wife is a Brit and her accent would make most Republicans think that she's too smart to be First Lady.

You'd think that having been tortured would give McCain a leg up, but only losers get tortured, so he's out. Ron Paul is genuine, if by "genuine" you mean "self taught wacko," (again, very appealing to certain elements).

Over on the Dem side, Kucinich has as much chance of winning as he does as a Republican. Biden has a lock on the "Hair Club for Men," vote, but the only way he could finish farther out of the money would be to die his hair plugs green. Richardson is running for Vice-President; everyone knows it and everyone thinks he's doing a great job at it.

Dodd seems to be trying for the Integrity, Courage, and Constitutional Values vote, which means that he won't carry a single state. And there's certainly no money in it.

Among the front runners, you have a black man who isn't considered black, a woman who's supposed to be a lesbian martian cyborg, and a rich white guy who is the champion of the poor. None of the three is crazy, which is a distinct plus. Also, all three benefit from the idea that you shouldn't believe what they say, since that would interfere with their being all things to all people.

It's not clear what will happen when the electorate realizes that Oprah isn't married to Obama, and that Hillary is, in fact, a woman. I'll just repeat my frequent warning: never rule out the middle-aged white guy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Indian Music Show

I've heard it said that everything in the 60s can be traced back to Kennedy, Dylan, or the Beatles. Okay, it was me who said it, and I agree that it isn't true or fair, except insofar as it is.

Take Ravi Shankar. He was the most acclaimed musician of the sitar of his generation, and his fame reached beyond India even before his Beatles-linked fame. Put it another way: without the celebrity from his connection to George Harrison and popular music, Shankar might still have recorded his collaboration with Yehudi Menuhin, but the two musicians might have been of equal fame, or Menuhin might even have been the more famous of the two. As things actually transpired, it's safe to assume that the vast majority of those who purchased recordings of the collaboration did so because of Shankar.

By the time I worked at WRPI, there was a wealth of Indian music available on record, but, of course, Shakar was getting most of the progressive radio airplay. I have no specific recollection of the events leading up to the decision by Bruce Barnett and myself to start an Indian Music show on WRPI, but I vaguely recall that it had to do with us bitching about how we preferred the sarod to the sitar, and Ali Akbar Khan to Ravi Shankar. Then we probably compared notes on which of the available Indian music recordings we had scored in the bargain bins over the years, and we realized we had enough to do a one hour show every Sunday.

Purnima Jha
Indian Kathak Dance

I also expect that this happened over the summer; given the nature of volunteer college radio, you can do almost anything during the summer. There aren't enough people around to keep a full programming slate, and who's going to stop you, anyway?

Sundays were WRPIs "block programming" day. Many college stations (and non-profit stations of all stripes) resort to block programming, x amount of time devoted to a particular type of music, or some non-musical format, followed by a complete break and into some entirely different deal. WRPI was something of an anomaly, as was the progressive music format generally, although it has morphed into the "alternative" format that still exists on many college campuses. (WRPI currently seems to be entirely block programmed, however).

There is a minor paradox that what was, by far, WRPI's most popular show in the late 60s, "Request Line Oldies" was in the block programming ghetto. RLO was so popular that at least one local radio station (the dj, it must be admitted, was a WRPI alumnus) simply listened to the RLO programming and ran the same songs with a little delay. But, of course, "Hey, Baby, They're Playin' Our Song," (the show's theme song) is bound to get an audience.

Another block show of note was the folk music show, albeit not so much the version that existed in my first years at RPI, "Folk Fest," which tended toward performers like Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan, which is to say, singer-songwriters who had started in the folk tradition. I once heard Merle Travis perform, and he told the story of being asked by a record label to write and record an album of folk songs. He said that he explained to them that they were sorta asking him to build antiques, but, hey, money is money, and he wrote "Sixteen Tons," and "Dark as a Dungeon," for it.

So the real folkies in the area (and upstate New York has a Lot of Real Folkies), kept carping, until finally, "Mostly Folk," with Jackie Alper, a majorly old-line folkie, took the helm. From there on out, it was pretty hard core folk music on display. (Jackie died last September, having been ill for a long time, but the show is still on the air).

Once Barnett and I started the Indian Music show, we had an excuse to really go hog wild, and both of us accumulated records like the vinyl junkies we were. Also, once the show lit up on the promo radar, we started getting promotional copies of every new Indian Music record released in the U.S. We also contacted (I expect that Bruce was the guy with the initiative on this one) Nonesuch Records, which supplied us with practically every one of its Explorer Series records.

Some of the Explorer Series were Indian music; many were not. So periodically, we'd slip some Egyptian or Balinese music into the mix. One show I did (Bruce was out that Sunday), just traced the sarod/oud/lute/guitar from India to England, by way of Northern Africa (side trip to Greece and the Balkans, however). Placed in geographic context, the cultural diffusion of music is pretty obvious, or at least it was to my ear. Eventually, the show became what would not be called a "World Music" show, but that was toward the end of my time at RPI, and overlapped the time I was banned from the station (a story I'll probably never tell, BTW).

The biggest obstacle we had was getting the audience to accept Indian vocal music. The quartertone warbles that are a key feature of much of it really grate on many western ears, so I spent a significant amount of time on some shows just trying to convince somebody on the phone to give it a chance, really, it can grow on you. Several people who heard me on these type calls remarked on how diplomatic I was being, an indication perhaps of both how much I wanted people to hear and accept the music, and how great my reputation for being, shall we say, less than diplomatic on other occasions.

It turned out that there was a sizable community of Indian immigrants in New York's capitol district, and we wound up meeting a number of them. Basically, they were asking that we play some contemporary music, which translates to movie music, it turned out. So Bruce and I diligently went out and collected a bunch of records and played them on one of the shows. I'm not sure what your opinion is about Bollywood musicals, but let me tell you, the music in them has greatly improved over the last 35 years. I was barely able to listen to our own show that day, though I imagine that, had I taken my own advice and given it more of a chance, well, maybe.

I was also found every one of the Indian nationals that I met to be just impressive, smart, personable, well-educated, the works. I eventually decided (perhaps correctly) that with half a billion people to choose from, we were getting the cream of the crop, and that was bound to be impressive.

In at least one case, Madam Chari, the result was nearly superhuman, or at least so said Bruce. This would be a woman who was a neurosurgeon and concert level sitar player that Bruce raved about for weeks after meeting her. Obviously, however, that would be his tale to tell and not mine. All I can say is that these stories are not always about me.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Nietzsche and Me

We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex. – Hugh Hefner

Just for the record, I always found Hefner’s use of the editorial “we” somewhat jarring. The above sounds more like an invitation to group sex (with a single female participant) than a one-on-one dialog.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


Friedrich Nietzsche was a hard luck guy, no doubt about it. He was, for a time, an intimate of Richard and Cosima Wagner, then broke with them, in part because of Wagner’s anti-Semitism. His enormous output of philosophical work in the mid 1880s was greeted with what can most kindly be described as cool indifference by the intellectual community of Europe, and he suffered a complete mental breakdown in 1889, living another 11 years in full psychotic fugue. Suggestions as to the cause range from syphilis to brain cancer. If he had syphilis he probably contracted it from his time as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, his physical contacts with women somewhere between few and non-existent. In any case, Nietzsche certainly had some neurological complaint, as he frequently suffered from blinding headaches, yet continued to work in snatches punctuated by near total collapse, a situation that gives insight into what Nietzsche was getting at when he glorified the will.

After his collapse, his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, took over his affairs. She and her husband were anti-Semites, fairly virulent ones, though it’s difficult at this distance for a non-historian to gauge whether “virulent” meant merely “average.” In any case, her editing of Nietzsche’s notebooks and publication as The Will to Power began the distortion of his legacy. Being appropriated by the Nazis as a forebear sealed his fate for the first half of the 20th Century. It didn’t help that Leopold and Loeb cited him as an inspiration. Very bad English translations can apparently be as pernicious as listening to Black Sabbath records played backwards.

And the first English translations of Nietzsche were very bad. I’ve read a few of them, and whoo boy. Nietzsche was a poet as well as a philosopher, and he wrote with wit and irony. Subtract those, and, well, you might as well think that Jonathan Swift really was in favor of cannibalism. It surely didn’t help that his most famous work, Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), was also his most poetic and allegorical. Even most native German speakers didn’t know what to make of it.

Then there was the unfortunate fate of the word “Übermensch” first translated as “Superman.” “Strange visitor from another planet” wasn’t what Nietzsche had in mind, but there you are. Proto-Nazi or comic book inspiration, those were what the poor fellow had been reduced to.

Then, in the 1950s, one German-born, American academic philosopher, Walter Kaufman, set out to rehabilitate Nietzsche’s reputation. It didn’t hurt that he taught at Princeton, and that he was a brilliant translator and a poet in his own right. First with books about Nietzsche, linking him to the existentialist tradition (a decided step up from Nazis and comic books), then with superb translations of Nietzsche’s own works, by the mid-1960s, Nietzsche the philosopher was respectable again. Indeed, he was more than respectable; he was hip.

Okay, there are various reasons why one might be embarrassed at having had a youthful fling with Ayn Rand, albeit in the Platonic sense, except that Rand despised Plato, and the phrase “in the Aristotelian sense,” doesn’t really, uh, make sense in this context. Nevertheless, I was young, open to new ideas (or new ones to me, anyway), and besides, among other things, she introduced me the Nietzsche. Not that this was her intention (or that she had even the vaguest notion of my very existence); indeed, she was attempting to warn me off.

In “Rolls Rex, King of Cars” my erstwhile collaborator Sharon Farber’s first story about a young girl named Billy Jean, she has Billy Jean’s hippie mother tell her not to go snooping around the farm next door, so the first thing that BJ does when left alone is make a bee line for the farm next door. I myself wasn’t quite that forthright. What happened was that I once found myself in a conversation with someone, comparing Rand and Nietzsche, and I realized that I hadn’t actually read the guy. If I kept that up, I figured that sooner or later, someone was going to think I was a nitwit, and I do not like being thought a nitwit. I especially don’t like it if the someone thinking I’m a nitwit is me.

(Since then I’ve learned that most intellectual discussions involve someone faking it at some point or another, basing their opinions on a book review, or a panel discussion, or the Cliff Notes version in one way or another. Furthermore, it is the height of impoliteness to point this out. Live and learn).

Anyway I got some of the Kaufman books and I read Nietzsche. And here’s the interesting thing: I found that, even when I disagreed with old Friedrich, he was still damned interesting to read. Stimulating. Informative. Manna for the budding intellectual, as it were.

Then I went to RPI, and in my freshman year, I assumed the editorship of the student magazine, Perspective. The two guys who had started it were seniors, and they were soon to be out of there anyway. They had a budget from the Student Union, so, hey, cool. I hadn’t made contact with science fiction fandom yet, so I didn’t know about all the folks making do with mimeograph and corflu; I had several hundred dollars to spend on full photo-offset printing, and I learned the most basic skill for getting people to do unpaid work (nagging). I managed to get two issues out, one my freshman year and the other my sophomore year and that was pretty much it for Perspective, but I had quite a bit of fun doing it.

Nietzsche was pretty much the patron saint of Perspective. Rich, one of the outgoing editors, had an article/essay in my first issue titled “Science and Tragedy.” At least, that was his title; I had to yank an illo at the last moment and for layout purposes, I changed the title to “Science and Apollo; Art and Dionysius.” That had been, more-or-less, nearly as I could tell, what he was driving at, a parallel between Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and what C. P. Snow called “The Two Cultures,” except that Rich never mentioned Snow. He was, however, really pissed about my changing his title, which is entirely fair, and entirely my bad. I shouldn’t have done it, and my only excuse is that, if you appoint a freshman as editor of your magazine, you should expect some screwups.

There was also a guy named Greg who had written a pseudononymous critical letter about Perspective, as well as a couple of things for the school literary magazine, The Gorgon. I penetrated his pseudonym through the clever technique of getting drunk with one of his fraternity brothers. By “clever” I mean “totally accidental.” So I met with Greg one afternoon and had a nice chat, and son of a gun, yet another Nietzschean. These guys were just thick on the ground back then; I told you Nietzsche was hip.


A Few Aphorisms from Nietzsche. Note: Don’t expect any of that “whatever does not kill me is a rope stretched across an abyss that looks back at you when you’re hunting monsters because God is dead” stuff. Better you should read The Nietzsche Family Circus.


Discovering that one is loved in return really ought to disenchant the lover with the beloved. "What? This person is low enough to love even me? Or stupid enough? Or -- or ---"

Sometimes in the course of conversation the sound of our own voice disconcerts us and misleads us into making assertions which in no way correspond to our opinions.

A sure means of irritating people and putting evil thoughts into their heads is to keep them waiting a long time.

There is an innocence in admiration; it is found in those to whom it has never occurred that they, too, might be admired some day.

Never to speak about oneself is a very noble piece of hypocrisy.

Talking much about oneself can also be a means to conceal oneself.

The advantage of a bad memory is that one can enjoy the same good things for the first time several times.

Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the best even of their blunders.

Half-knowledge is more victorious than whole knowledge: it understands things as being more simple than they are and this renders its opinions more easily intelligible and more convincing.

Man is very well defended against himself, against being reconnoitered and besieged by himself, he is usually able to perceive of himself only his outer walls. The actual fortress is inaccessible, even invisible to him, unless his friends and enemies play the traitor and conduct him in by a secret path.

An injustice we have perpetrated is much harder to bear than an injustice perpetrated against us...

When our head feels too weak to answer the objections of our opponent our heart answers by casting suspicion on the motives behind his objections.

It is more comfortable to follow one's conscience than one's reason: for it offers an excuse and alleviation if what we undertake miscarries--which is why there are always so many conscientious people and so few reasonable ones.

One has to repay good and ill -- but why precisely to the person who has done us good or ill?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Pseudonyms Anonymous

Hello, my name is John, Peter, Walter, Matthew, and Dorothy, and I am a pseudonym.

Or at least I was or have been a pseudononym, at various times. Most of them date from my school days at RPI, where I was first editor off the student political/philosophical journal, Perspective, then Features Editor, Managing Editor, then Editor of the Rensselear Engineer.

When you don’t have money to pay writers, getting stuff actually written becomes a bit of a problem. You assign things to the staff, who are volunteers, just like I was, and they do it or not, depending on whatever reasons made them join the staff in the first place, tempered by the other demands on their time from school work and basic needs like trying to eat, sleep, bath occasionally, and get laid (there’s some correlation amongst those, you’ll note). You impose on friends and acquaintances. You learn to nag. You come up with cockamamie science fiction writing contests.

That one worked pretty well, actually, provided you’re counting words and not paying much attention to quality. We had six judges, faculty members mostly, and every one of them picked an entirely different winner, and thought that the stories chosen by the other judges were complete crap. So we printed all six and reported the first part of the judges opinions and not the second. I’m not a complete idiot.

Anyway, when the cost/benefit ratio on the various methods of cajoling etc. went too high, I wrote some more stuff. And in the time-honored tradition of editors since the beginning of time, I put different names on most of it, so it wouldn’t look like only one person was writing it all. There was a practical, if mildly unethical, reason for this: we got money from the Student Union to produce the magazines, and the number of students involved in any given activity was a factor in that activity’s budget, so the appearance of a larger staff made our budget more secure. Also, being represented on the Executive Board of the Student Union was a factor in budgeting, which is why I joined the E-Board, as it was called, my Junior year. I am a nefarious and conniving sort.

I also used pseudonyms for a few submissions to The Gorgon, RPI's student literary publication. I did this for a different reason than the other times I used pseudonyms; it was for fear of embarrassment.

As I have noted, I consider myself to be a lousy poet. This belief is backed by the fact that I am, indeed, a lousy poet; anything past simple rhymed couplets, limericks, and doggerel that I’ve attempted just makes me cringe on later reading. However, on the path to learning this great truth, I wrote a fair amount of poetry. Midway through this stop-me-before-I-kill-again realization, I decided I’d submit some to The Gorgon and see how they looked in print and what the response would be. Or see if they rejected it as crap. Either way, I’d learn something.

The problem was that, although they did indeed publish some of it, the only response that I could discern was from me, which is that it was still lousy, and so was most of the other stuff in The Gorgon. Not one of my more profound revelations: that most poetry written by students at a small engineering school was crap.

I will follow the sense of mild humiliation that remembering any thing about my writing poetry with a bit of a brag. RPI has this honorary society called “Phalanx.” Up until around my time, during those insidious “kids got no respect for tradition” sixties, the members got to wear cheesy white coats with a purple square on one of the pockets (representing the phalanx military formation, right?). There were also pins, I seem to recall. We got rid of those, and by “we” I mean student government generally (I was an E-Board member, eh?). We then got rewarded by being made members of Phalanx and not getting anything to show for it except our name on a list. By “we” here, I mean “me.”

Anyway, making Phalanx isn’t the brag. The brag is that I later heard that one of my pseudonyms had been considered for membership in Phalanx, but the idea was dropped because nobody could find him on any class rolls, him not actually existing, you see. But it was kinda cool.

Years later, Sharon Farber, my sometimes collaborator and I used a pseudonym a couple of times, one “Dorothy Smith,” (“Dot” Smith—get it? Oh, we had ‘em rolling in the aisles). We used Ms Smith as a pseudonym for a few stories where one or the other of us had a story that didn’t quite work and the other supplied the small, but necessary fix. Dorothy was the fixer-upper, a sort of “Remember thou art mortal” reminder. Much later, we had a profound disagreement on a collaborative story such that not even Dorothy could fix it so we ceased collaborating

Back in the late 80s, I first went on-line with Compuserve, which was the equivalent of being in a highly moderated Usenet Newsgroup. Moreover, every Compuserve user was theoretically identifiable; Compuserve had to know who you were (since somebody had to pay the bill), and you couldn’t just pop off and seconds later show up in a new identity, because everyone had a number tag and Compuserve email address. That was pretty much the case for the other on-line worlds, Genie, Delphi, America Online. Write anything bad enough and there was the possibility of real consequences.

The Internet, anonymous re-mailers, web-based email, cybercafés, public terminals, all these have changed that dynamic. It’s possible to operate online from a position of totally anonymity.

And I never do that. When I make a comment on someone’s blog, I give my own name and the path back to my own web pages, email addresses (I have several; doesn’t everyone?) or over to my little blog experiment where my user profile has those things. I’ve tried internet pseudonyms and they don’t feel right to me at all. Part of it may just be wanting what I say to have the weight of a real, identifiable person behind it. Part of it may be a sort of "old man in a raincoat on a park bench across from the playground" feel it has to it.

But I’ve been reflecting lately on what happens when we toss away components of the Superego, thing like accountability, consequences, empathy and persona. These are also components of the self, and they are part of what keeps the Id in check.

The Id is also part of the self. Ironically, denial of the Id gives it more power.

So every day I see things posted on the ‘net that are the verbal equivalent of “monsters from the Id.” Most often, they are anonymous; almost invariably they are written as if words have no consequences except possibly in relation to other words. Cyberspace becomes a massively multiplayer role playing game where magic rules, and not just in wizard-sodden gaming circles.

I am real; I have weight. Do your worst, puny magicians. My hide is thick with scales.

Dwarf magic does not work on dragons. Nobody knows why. - John Gardner, In the Suicide Mountains