Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Old South

CP Snow once said that all ancient British traditions date to the second half of the 19th Century, and his only error was to limit this claim to Britain. –John Quiggan

Growing up in Tennessee meant that I was subjected to the mythology of the “Old South” a fantasy of wonderment and social order on the antebellum plantations that takes the place of the quasi-feudal system of misery-based indolence that was the actual reality.

The first “plantation novel” is generally regarded to be Swallow Barn by John Pendleton Kennedy appeared in 1832, pre-dating Snow’s dictum by a couple of decades, but the genre really didn’t take off until after Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), when many southern writers decided to provide an alternative to Stowe’s novel. After all, they seemed to be saying, we actually live here and Stowe does not. Who would your rather believe?

Well, Harriet Beecher won the historical debate, and something of the literary debate as well. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a hard slog for many modern readers, but the plantation novels are virtually unreadable, and are certainly unread. I’ve looked at a couple; I never tried to read more than a couple of pages. The plantation novels live on in zombie form as a sub-set of modern romance fiction, but the later would be as unrecognizable (and possibly as repellant) to the original plantation novelists as the plantation novel is to modern readers. Still, I would like to see Kennedy’s reaction to Mandingo.

There were also a few humorists in antebellum southern literature. Again, at least to this reader, the humor does not age well.

Now realize, I first looked into the subject of antebellum southern arts and letters out of sheer cussedness, and possibly some of my opinions are tainted. Still, a more recent net search on the matter finds many a scholar who agrees with me. In fact, there is some body of scholarship interested in why the old South was largely absent from the “American Renaissance.” The only writer of the time who can stand next to Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman is Edgar Allen Poe, who, in some measure can be said to have achieved greatness by writing about almost everything but the South, and whose influence spanned oceans (e.g. Baudelaire), but had practically no effect on his neighbors.

As for painting, I’ve seen them and they’re dreadful: smarmy portraits of smug plantation owners, is pretty much the sum of it. Architecture? Jefferson doted on architecture, and maybe Monticello is fine, I’ve never visited. I’ve actually stayed in old style plantation homes, not to mention more than a few imitations, and they are more designed to impress one’s neighbors than to actually live in. Of course, I suppose if you have enough servants/slaves, anything become livable.

Then there is music and theater. The Minstrel Show is a good example of how the songs and dances of the slaves were appropriated and fed to white audiences in ways that reinforced the racial prejudices of those audiences. The “song writers” of the antebellum south were often little more than transcribers, up to, and especially including, Stephen Foster. This practice obviously did not end with the Civil War; in various forms, it continues to this day.

Of course, after the Civil War, there came an amazing outpouring of arts and letters from those displaced, uprooted, or just beaten down by the troubles of the times, not to mention the amazing music that evolved, and continues to evolve, from the merging of the African roots of the slaves with the Western music, instruments, and technology that forms the basis of true American art. While some of the post-War literature from southerners was as grand and glorious as Mark Twain, or the narratives of former slaves, much of it was in service of the self-serving white Southern Myth. From D. W. Griffith to Gone with the Wind, the myth is well ensconced in American popular culture with millions believing as part of their basic historical assumptions, that something wonderful had been lost in the Civil War.

Well, no it wasn’t. I’ve looked; there was little back there but a hollow shell of sycophants singing the praises of wealthy men. But telling that to a man with a pickup and a Confederate Flag is as useless as talking to an SCA member at a Renfair about cholera and indoor plumbing.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Fred Hoyle

[Previously posted at waagnfnp ]

Fred Hoyle was born in Yorkshire in 1914 to decidedly middle-class parents (a wool merchant and a teacher). He was probably the most prominent scientist to ever have a significant career as a science fiction writer, having written such books as The Black Cloud and A for Andromeda. In the latter novel, some scientists genetically engineer an alien woman based on DNA coding sequences they receive from a stellar transmission. The book was made into a 7 episode series for the BBC, then the idea was pinched for the movie Species.

Hoyle is popularly known for his coinage of the term “Big Bang” and for his opposition to the Big Bang Hypothesis; he believed in “Continuous Creation” and held to it long after the discovery of cosmic background radiation and the more-or-less complete adoption of the BBH by the entire astronomical community. Not content to be something of a crank on the Big Bang, he also put forth the theory of panspermia as an alternative to terrestrial evolution. Panspermia essentially holds that life first occurred in space, and then came to planets; its strong form holds that evolutionary changes rain down from space as viruses or something similar. It is held in high regard in some Creationist circles, though I have no idea why genetic changes from space viruses are more in keeping with Creationist logic (or lack of it) than terrestrial mutations.

It’s possible that Hoyle’s anti-establishmentarian mind-set cost him the Nobel Prize. Hoyle’s co-worker, William Fowler, won the Nobel in 1963, essentially for confirming Hoyle’s prediction of a resonance level in the carbon nucleus, a prediction that Hoyle made as a result of a problem in nucleosynthesis of heavy elements in stars. (It may be noted that Hoyle made the prediction as part of his program to explain heavy elements as being a natural result of stellar nucleosynthesis, something that was absolutely essential if continuous creation was to be viable).

The problem that Hoyle was working on involved the nuclear fusion of elements past helium. The difficulty is that, if you try to fuse helium, you get beryllium-8, which almost immediately fissions back into two helium nuclei. So helium looks like a dead end. The only way out seemed to be if another helium nucleus hit the Be-8 during its very short lifetime. Unfortunately, calculations showed that the resultant highly energetic carbon-12 nucleus would also break apart. Indeed, the nuclear formation of Be-8 (from a Li-7 plus a proton, say), or C-12 (boron-11 plus a proton) form the basis of proposals for “light fission” nuclear power, because the created nuclei fly apart to He-4, liberating considerable energy.

Hoyle decided that there had to be a “nuclear resonance” in carbon-12 nuclei, that sometimes allowed the stable formation of C-12 from the Be-8 + He-4 reaction. Fowler later measured that resonance and found it to be only a few percent off Hoyle’s calculations.

It was about as daring a prediction as has ever been made in science, combining nuclear physics, astronomy, and the anthropic principle (Hoyle reasoned that he was made of carbon, therefore there must be a way for carbon to be formed), along with the simple bloody-mindedness of trying to support a doomed theory, continuous creation.

Hoyle was eventually knighted, and is doubtless much more famous than his co-workers, or, for that matter, Alpher, Bethe, and Gamov, who formulated the Big Bang hypothesis, but didn’t name it as such. Hoyle also championed Jocelyn Bell, as the real discoverer of pulsars (her Ph.D. advisor was awarded the Nobel), again showing perhaps the effects of not being from quite the right social class for British science.

Of Hoyle’s novels, only The Black Cloud seems to be in print, but many of his others can be found used; I was always fond of October the First Is Too Late. I’d also recommend Element 79, a collection of short stories, for often providing just loopy good fun.

Everyone Knows This is Now Here

Back when the Genie SF Roundtable was in operation, there was a fellow who proclaimed that Iraq had a higher literacy rate than the U.S. I thought this a very dubious proposition and told him so. Then I went and checked the statistics given by various sources (including the ones mentioned by my fellow Genian), and the stats said I was right. Iraq has a literacy rate of around 80% and the U.S. comes in at over 99%.

Not that the person in question was convinced, or changed what he said in public; I’ve heard him since say exactly the same thing as he said then, citing exactly the same sources. But I don’t really get into these Culture War arguments expecting to change the minds of antagonists. What I’m interested in is where these talking points come from and to what purpose.

I tracked what I believe was the source of this particular idea to a Clinton-era Dept. of Education study of “functional literacy.” This was a classic “ain’t it awful” document that has been used in advocacy of greater education spending by the left and in advocacy of drastic changes to public education by the right. No surprise there. When I managed to strip away all the obfuscatory verbiage, as nearly as I can tell, it said that 40% of students’ reading comprehension was in the bottom two quintiles of reading performance.

Yes, and it’s a damn shame that half of our children are below average, too.

Now “Why Johnny Can’t Read” has been a teapot tempest for a long while. It’s not hard to find those who think that public schools are teaching the wrong things in the wrong way to the wrong people, and not fulfilling their job of properly indoctrinating children in what someone thinks they should be indoctrinated. And then of course there are those who think that schools should teach “critical thinking,” which I’ve never been able to translate to something other than “teach them to think like me.” That may be a fine thing, (especially if the template is to be me) but I won’t pretend that it isn’t self-serving.

It should come as no surprise that the Conservative Movement has a doctrine, talking points, faux statistics, and ways of making money off of this. In particular, I don’t think that the last point is surprising, since the CM also thinks that free enterprise is an intrinsically moral enterprise. Of course they would create businesses to supply the things they think schools should have, and of course they would work at the local, state, and federal politics of advancing those business interests. That is how they believe the system should work.

Nevertheless, there are certain points of doctrine that can cause real suffering when adamantly asserted and applied to the world. Of those, I think the two most pernicious are the denial that there is such a thing as “dyslexia,” and the assertion that phonics is the only proper way to teach reading.

At RPI, I came to be on good terms with Arthur Burr (now deceased), then the Dean of the School of Engineering. He once confided to me that his son was dyslexic; he had some glitch in his visual perception that made reading difficult. He could and did learn to read, but reading was always an effort for him, and if prolonged, would cause headaches and other maladies. So he read those things that he found essential, but reading for recreation was simply impossible. The result was a gap in shared experience between father and son that could never be bridged.

Still, Art’s son had fashioned a good life as a house carpenter and father, and Art could, and did, treasure their outings and times together. But imagine if he was committed to the belief that dyslexia wasn’t real, but rather a subterfuge to avoid having to read. What sort of alienation between father and son would that produce? For that matter, if I had expressed that opinion, how much of a betrayal of my friendship with Art would that have been?

When I was in the fourth grade, one of my classmates, whom I’ll call Ken, was called upon to read aloud during English class. He was not a good reader; he read slowly and frequently stumbled. The rest of the class listened politely, until Ken hit the word “nowhere,” which he pronounced “now here.” And there was laughter.

With the luxury of decades of hindsight, I can notice that, in fact, Ken was doing the correct thing according to the doctrine of Phonics. He broke the word apart into syllables, sounded them out, then pronounced them. He was betrayed by the nature of English and its spelling, which requires that a lot of words be simply memorized and taken at a glance, rather like the “look-see” method that Phonics advocates deride.

Being doctrinally correct gave no assistance to Ken, of course. I wish that I could say that I was not one of the ones who laughed at him, but I have no memory either way. I do strongly suspect that I did laugh, however. I was young and that’s what young people do. I’d like to think I didn’t laugh, but I’m left only with the wish that I hadn’t, and the probability that I did.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Dorothy, Slave Girl of Oz

The actual title of this book was Slave Girl of Ozymandias, but I use the alternate title because it was an obvious pastiche/parody of the Wizard of Oz, with a bit of Barbarella thrown in.

By the late 1970s, John Norman was getting a little tired of being locked into the B&D sameness of the Gor series, and apparently decided that the way to break out was through a combination of whimsy and hard-core sex. So he wrote this book, hoping to broaden his audience perhaps, or maybe he was just venting.

The plot begins with space explorer Dorothy (no last name is ever given) crashing onto the planet Ozymandias, once a unified planet, but now splintered into numerous pseudo-feudal regions. Dorothy’s ship crashes into the palace of the sorceress/queen/witch/ruler of the Western Land, freeing the subjugated people, the Munchies. The Munchies, as the name implies, are basically stoners with an oral fixation, and that includes their sexual habits. The festival that follows the death of the hated ruler also marks the first orgy scene in the book.

Dorothy is accompanied by her Labrador, Whole, and the book uses the Whole/Hole pun a lot. After the orgy, the Munchies direct Dorothy to the titular city, Ozymandias, formerly the capital of the planetary government, to find a part needed to repair her spacecraft. As you might expect, (this being an Oz parody and all), she soon meets up with various others who are en route to Ozymandias, a mechanical man, Al (short for Aluminium), Leo the beast man, and Corby, a highwayman with a Secret. It is later revealed that Corby is actually one of the last of a thought-to-be-extinct species of anthropomorphic plants (shades of Ficus Padurata!).

Norman obviously couldn’t include every known sexual deviance in the book, but he certainly tried, with group sex and bestiality being the mainstays. In the case of the fields of Spanish Fly, and the orgy with the winged monkeys (they were called something else, but I forget what), he managed both at once. At one point Dorothy indulges in a three-way with Al and Corby, while pondering the evolution of vibrators and cucumbers.

Dorothy and company do reach Ozymandias, and of course are then sent out onto another quest, to meet the ruler of the Eastern Land, a lesbian with whom Dorothy quickly hooks up and conquers, as it were (“Oh, Dorothy! I’m melting!).

On returning to Ozymandia, Dorothy engages in some fairly prosaic geriatric sex with the ruler of the city, obtains her needed part (yes, Norman exploits that double entendre as well) and leaves the planet.

Whatever hopes Norman had for the success of this book were conceived without taking the awesome power of the L. Frank Baum estate into account, however. While the Baum estate is known for diligent copyright and trademark protection (and Norman may have been hoping for the loophole allowed for parody), less well-known are the connections that Baum developed with organized crime before his death. With the Oz books’ royalties swelling Mafia coffers, it isn’t very surprising that they would look unkindly on someone else’s attempts to cash in. Add that to the fact that they were still smarting from the loss of control over the pornography industry (due to the Mitchell Brothers’ lawsuit), and you had a clandestine organization that was spoiling for a fight.

Fight they did, both in court, with restraining orders, and underground, through influence in labor unions and other front organizations. Teamsters refused to deliver copies of the book to distributors, bookstore found themselves subject to vandalism and harassment, and media outlets were instructed not to review or even acknowledge the book.

As a result, only a few hundred copies of the book were ever distributed, and most of those were immediately purchased by Baum estate agents and destroyed. The copy I read was fourth generation photocopy, with the illustrations so blurred as to remind one of watching scrambled X-rated cable TV.

It would be tempting to bemoan the loss of a classic, but in truth, the controversy was probably more interesting than the book itself. The writing was clunky, most of the jokes fell flat, and the sex scenes never reached the level of eroticism or even, truth to tell, prurient interest. Still, it’s interesting to consider Norman’s career after that and wonder what he might have written had this avenue not been closed.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Night Slaves

I’ll give a spoiler alert here, though I seriously doubt that anyone would ever care much about it. The number of people who are going to go and read a 1965 novel by a relatively obscure author isn’t large.

Jerry Sohl was a not entirely unsuccessful science fiction writer; his books include The Haploids, Costigan's Needle, The Transcendent Man, The Altered Ego, The Mars Monopoly, and The Odious Ones. He largely gave up writing science fiction in the late 1950s, and moved on to become a not entirely unsuccessful scriptwriter, mostly for television, but with a few motion picture credits to his name, including one for “Frankenstein Conquers the World.” He also wrote a few Star Trek scripts, including “The Corbomite Maneuver” and “This Side of Paradise” (the “Enterprise Crew gets high on alien spores” episode).

He also wrote the TV movie adaptation of his novel Night Slaves, which is mostly faithful to the original, with one important difference. That’s the spoiler part.

Sohl published Night Slaves in 1965, several years after the next most recent SF he’d published, and after he had made the transition to television. The made-for-TV movie adaptation appeared in 1970.

The plot of Night Slaves is pretty familiar. The gimmick is the guy-with-a-metal-plate-in-his-head, one Clay Howard. He’s married to Marjorie, who is in love with another man, but doesn’t want to leave Clay while he’s recovering from the auto accident that put in the metal plate, and killed the woman in the oncoming car.

So Clay and Marjorie come to a small town for Clay to rest up. Then the fun begins. Clay wakes up in the middle of the night and the town is empty; everyone is gone. He stays up the next night and follows Marjorie, only to see the whole population of the town line up at midnight, climb into trucks, and leave.

Well, okay, long story short, they’re being used as workers by mind-controlling aliens, and Clay is immune because of the metal plate thing. One of the aliens is the beautiful Naillil, with whom Clay falls in love. Hurray for interstellar romance!

Clay tells Marjorie about this, but she is a bit skeptical. Pretty odd, she thinks, that the alien woman’s name just happens to be “Lillian” spelled backwards, and wasn’t that the name of the woman in the oncoming car? The one who died?

Fooey on you, says Clay. Naillil and I are soul mates. I’m running away with her. Which he does. In the book, he does this by slitting his wrists and dying.

Say what?

Yes, dear friends, the book version of Night Slaves ISN’T SCIENCE FICTION! Clay Howard is suffering from a paranoid delusion, induced by guilt over his having killed the woman, Lillian, in the automobile accident. Every single SF element in the story is the delusion of a sick mind.

Then, to cap the whole thing, when Sohl used it as the basis of a teleplay, he omitted the subversive ending and turned it into a standard SF story, rather like the edited for TV version of Brazil ended before you get to the part about the protagonist having retreated into fantasy under torture.

I have to say, my hat’s off to Jerry Sohl. As I note in my essay “Sleeping in Fritz Leiber’s Bed,” I’ve long been interested in stories that aren’t fantasy per se, but are rather about fantasy. Sohl’s Night Slaves was one of the first such stories I encountered, though I probably didn’t notice it as such at the time. You need several examples to generalize, after all.

It’s also interesting to consider the marketing of it. Night Slaves, the novel was sold as science fiction, and for good reason. Only SF readers would really understand its subversive aspects. On the other hand, most of us probably hated it, because it violates a basic rule of the genre: if you protagonist has a metal plate in his head, he’s the one who is right and everyone else is wrong.

Or something like that.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Playing the Changes

In the late ‘50s into the ‘60s, my Dad operated a small radio/TV repair business. Sometimes it was on the side, occasionally it was his main occupation. He eventually gave it up, as color television and general transistorization shrank the ecological niche. The capital expense of color television repair equipment was too high, and transistor circuit board electronics were too hard to repair and cheap enough to just replace.

During this time he wound up in possession of all sorts of odds and ends. It happens pretty often once people know that you repair things; they just give you stuff, hoping that you can repair it easily enough to make it worth your while, and they’re just glad to get rid of it. You should see my workshop.

One thing that wound up in my Dad’s basement workshop was an old jukebox, designed to play 78s. It no longer worked and Dad gave it to me to take apart, because I liked taking things apart to see how they worked. I still do; it’s just getting harder and harder to figure out how they work, which is the source of my own reply to Clarke’s Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from something that has no business working in the first place.

The old jukebox had an electromechanical system that selected the record to be played: a bunch of push buttons that activated a servo that pushed the selected record out of a rack. Beneath the record was a spindle and turntable that pushed up to move the record off its carrier, up to the needle arm, which stayed at the one height.

Later 45 rpm record jukeboxes had a turntable that stayed at a constant height and the records were selected from a set of 45s that were in a sort of torus that rotated to bring the selection to the top. A mechanical arm then grabbed the correct record, pulled it from its position, then swung around to place the record on the turntable.

In both cases, the jukeboxes had a sort of mechanized ritual aspect to them: put in your coin, then watch the robotic sequence of actions that culminated in music. In some ways, the ritual is as much a part of the nostalgia as the music itself. Also, because of the delay, different songs never encroached upon one another.

The AM radio experience of the 1950s had a similar feel to the jukeboxs, with the added feature of the Disk Jockey persona, a hyperkinetic voice introducing records, selling product, and generally trying to generate a party atmosphere while sequestered into a tiny room with artificial lights. Often they’d talk right through the intro to the song, stopping only when the lyrics began. Memory tells me that it was a rare event to play songs back to back. That was usually reserved for phone-in “contests” of “Choose your Favorite Song and Win a Free Pen and Pencil Set,” or whatever.

When I got to RPI in the fall of 1968, WRPI-FM had just switched over to the “Progressive Rock” format, following the lead of some ground-breaking stations in NY, Boston, and Philadelphia. The next spring they boosted their power and coverage and became the most popular FM station in the Albany/Schenectady/Troy area.

I didn’t join WRPI until the spring of my Senior year, and I also staying in Troy during the summer between my undergraduate and graduate years at RPI. But I’d converted to the WRPI way of hearing music much earlier, and part of that was appreciating the segues.

A good deal of the joy of Progressive Radio was the mix, not just the music that was being played, but how it fit into the context of the other music that was being played. You can trace it back to the “party stack,” a set of 45s that people would bring to parties for dance music, and hit compilation records, often for a similar purpose. Then you had “Mood Music” which is to say, Music to Seduce Your Girlfriend By. That often had a lot of strings or Johnny Mathis, or Frank Sinatra.

Progressive Radio expanded the vision of the mix, and the segue, the seamless connection of one song to the other was the unit element. The typical radio setup was twin turntables and a mixing board, making it easy to do a cross-fade. We also had various additional sources like cassettes for station breaks, EBS and PSAs, and, for commercial stations, the commercials themselves. At WRPI, we used an eight-track player for pre-records, though there was also a couple of giant reel-to-reel tape decks that were also good for echo effects, or for playing practical jokes by getting a half second delay into the announcers headphones that is absolutely guaranteed to make it impossible to speak coherently.

There was a more-or-less standard evolution of DJ experience at WRPI. Someone would join the station with a particular set of musical tastes, maybe they liked folk, or jazz, or acid rock, and they’d lean toward that set of tastes initially. For that reason, there was a list of “format songs” categorized according to type, with a set sequence of types. You could choose any song from a group during the sequence, but you couldn’t vary the sequence much, though once each sequence you could play whatever you liked. I pushed the envelop on that pretty quickly by playing entire album sides (hey, “The Land of Grey and Pink” by Caravan is a single cut, even if it’s over 20 minutes long), and almost got into trouble for it.

By the time I got there, the “WRPI format” list was something like an inch thick of computer printout. You could literally go for days following the format and never play the same song twice. Some guys did play the same songs every show they had, but it was rare for someone to be on more than once a week, and the next guy would not have the same favorites. In fact, it was considered a gaffe to play something that the previous announcer had played. In many ways, it was the anti-thesis of the radio jukebox.

That, of course, polarized the audience (and our student listeners). Some were very happy with WRPI, and some just wanted a big campus jukebox, maybe one filled with Progressive Rock, but a jukebox catering to student tastes (and requests) nonetheless.

Requests was one of the real issues, in fact. One of the most popular WRPI shows for many years was “Request Line Oldies” on Sunday night (Sunday was block programmed with special shows, the only day in the week departing from the Progressive format). But at other times, the DJs didn’t want to hear from requests.

They had a point. Nobody was getting paid; it was a student volunteer organization. So what did we announcers get out of it? Fame? We were faceless, and many of us used “on-air” pseudonyms (I just used my initials). Groupies? Yeah, right. Something swell to put on our resumes? Maybe for a few guys, mostly the techies. The sound of our own voices? Sometimes there were shows where the music was non-stop for an entire hour, right up to the station break, followed by a quick recitation of the playlist of the past hour, then back to another hour of solid music. It was public speaking for shy introverts.

No, most of us were there because we loved music, and loved to program the shows. Substituting someone else’s tastes turned it into just another unpaid job. Besides, if you’ve spent an entire week thinking about what you’re going to play, setting up a flow and a mood, you’re absolutely not going to suddenly break that flow by inserting Lighthouse, no matter how much you like Lighthouse.

Still, I did play a request from time to time, usually refraining from mentioning that it was a request, because all you had to do was say the word “request” and you’d spend the rest of the show on the phone dealing with the flood. WRPI had a lot of listeners.

I should also mention that there was one guy, John Robinson, (coincidentally a member of the Albany Science Fiction Club that I was part of at the time), who had an uncanny knack for calling me to request a cut that I had on my list for the night, often only one or two down. John had my number, I guess, in more ways than one.

Anyway, getting back to the DJ evolution. After first getting their “fave raves” out of their systems, getting tired of playing the same things over and over, the next step was to branch out or go deeper. The guys who started on Dylan would get to Van Ronk, or Buffy St. Marie, then whoops! Folkways and Rounder were filling their stack. The jazz guys would go from Brubeck to Miles, then to Coltrane and Coleman. And so forth. Even so, the format was there to keep them in line, more or less.

In the evenings and nighttime, though, the announcers were no longer subject to the format. Those were “prime time” (which extended to 2 A.M.), where the most experienced announcers were slotted. And during the “Great Music Drought” of the early 1970s, when rock hit a dry spell, some of the evening guys went over entirely to something else, most often jazz, to the further exasperation of the audience.

But after the overt musical glitches worked themselves through a DJs tastes, most of us began to work the flow itself, playing music that blended into a particular mood or theme. Then came the sort of one-upsmanship that enjoyed putting two things together in a way that both surprised and satisfied, like rubbing Neal Diamond up against Firesign Theater, or “Let It All Hang Out” into Frazier and Debolt. Sometimes the idea was to jolt the listener a bit, which could be as simple as hard following soft, or loud following quiet. I never did manage to find a place for the most jarring segue I ever heard, though. That was an accidental juxtaposition that came on a Sunday, between Barnett’s and my Indian Music block, and the following blues show. Soft Carnatic flute music flows into John Lee Hooker with all the grace of The Titanic into the iceberg.

The group dynamic that developed was competitive, with a little taste of messianic snobbery thrown it. “Here’s the good stuff,” we’d say, “And by the way, didn’t I just do a really good show?” The goal was to get people to call in, not to ask for you to play something they already liked, but to find out what the hell it was that you just played. Or to call and tell you how much they enjoyed what you were doing. Even better if it was your peers, though we know what happens when the comic starts getting laughs only from the band. In any case, the general consensus was that I was very good at whatever it was that we were doing.

Over the years, I’ve made mix tapes and more recently CDs. I’ve also listened to other people’s mix tapes, and some are good, but most are just ordinary, because that’s what ordinary is, isn’t it?

More recently, we have the phenomenon of the iPod and related devices, but I think the real advance there is the “shuffle,” which lets the machine surprise you. Most recently, I’ve loaded mine with albums by T-Bone Burnett, Mark Knopfler, Blossom Dearie, The Clash, African folk, African pop, The Low Millions, Cyndi Lauper, Jack Teagarden, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, The Cranberries, Elvis Costello, Javanese Gamelan, INXS, Diana Krall, Kaki King, The Crystal Method, Chris Issak, Suzanne Vega, The Don Redman Orchestra, and Artie Shaw. I’m paying particular attention to the segues that the shuffle provides.

I do wish it had a cross-fade function though. Sometimes the wait between songs just drives me crazy.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Guy on the Bike

There was a bar in Berkeley where I used to hang out. I mentioned it in the acknowledgements in SunSmoke, because I often did some writing there. It was also a place I often went to have a beer after an Aikido practice. The first beer after Aikido doesn’t count, is the way I sometimes put it. Sometimes you’ve sweated so much that they first beer is like pouring water onto dry sand.

Neither the post-Aikido beer, nor the writing explain why I was often there at closing time, though, nor could massive alcohol consumption, since I tended to nurse each beer for at least an hour and rarely had more than three in an evening. I did like the ambiance of the place, though. A friend of a friend nicknamed the place “The Fellini Bar,” because of the weird décor—stuffed animals, manikins, that sort of thing.

One evening near closing, one of the waitresses asked my help in dealing with a guy who was “off.” You get pretty fond of the waitresses when you spend a lot of time in a bar, so I went over to the guy and offered to walk him home. He lived only a few blocks away, and he sensed that it was a good idea to take me up on the offer. He wasn’t too far gone to realize that he’d been scaring someone.

The guy had serious brain damage. He was living in a halfway house hotel on Shattuck Avenue, and I sat a while with him in his room, chatting. He’d done his best to decorate the room with magazine cut-out photos on the wall, a knick-knack here and there. He was trying his best. One of the things I learned was that after so bad a head trauma accident, one of the most important things that all the medical professionals tried to indoctrinate him with was that it was not okay to simply finish the job and kill himself. His speech would periodically return to what were obviously slogans that they’d fed him, e.g. “Now is not my time.”

He told me that it was from a motorcycle accident over ten years before. As I say, he was obviously trying to make the best of it, but there wasn’t much “best” to be had, especially because he remembered what it had once been like to be able to think and speak clearly.

There was much food for thought in our little encounter, much of it not relevant here, but there is one thing that came to me with considerable force: the guy who stepped onto the bike was not the guy that I was dealing with. People can yammer all they want about how it’s “their business” if they want to risk their lives, etc. etc. and I might be tempted to agree on principle. But it isn’t just “their business.” It’s also the business of whoever comes out the other side, the guy who isn’t them any longer, but who has a vague memory of having been them, once upon a time. And it’s the business of every waitress they’ll ever scare, and every guy who’ll ever have to walk them home.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

You say nerd; I say knurd

The sharp-eyed reader may observe that I have sometimes used an alternate spelling for the word commonly spelled as "nerd." In fact, before the movie Revenge of the Nerds, the only way I'd seen it spelled was knurd, and nurd.

A little web research says that I am part of a minority opinion that holds that knurd was a coinage at RPI, derived from "drunk" spelled backwards (a trope later used by Terry Pratchett). Certainly "knurd" was the first spelling I saw, in the RPI Bachelor college humor magazine, in 1968. The earliest appearance of the alternate spelling that is noted on the amateur scholarship sites that I can find is "nurd" in a 1965 issue of the Bachelor, which I have seen, and even probably have in some file boxes somewhere. When I was a publications knurd at RPI, I scored back issues of many of the student publications and I was fascinated.

The predominance of the k and u spellings of knurd at RPI is a fact. The question is whether or not the word itself under its current meaning (someone consumed with intellectual activities, often having poor social skills), came from RPI. There is, incidentally, no real argument as to the first appearance of the written word "nerd." That was in a Dr. Seuss book in 1950, and the word was cited in a Newsweek story in 1951 as being someone who was "square," which is close enough to the modern meaning. But the Newsweek reportage was translating oral slang, so the spelling gives no real help. The Dr. Seuss coinage may have been the source of the spelling (the meaning in the Seuss book was ambiguous), while the oral usage could have been inspired by the knurd/drunk origin.

Still, there was an earlier humor magazine at RPI, The Pup (famously banned for having published a fake and very unflattering picture of the dean of students). The issues of that magazine that I read didn't include a usage of knurd, to the best of my recollection. I've spoken to RPI alumni from earlier times, but, unfortunately, people in general do not have the sort of memory segmentation that I have, so they haven't been of much assistance.

The most parsimonious (and therefore most likely) explanation is that the origins of the word are still unknown, but the knurd spelling of it came from a later surmise by some students at RPI. I will hold out one not unreasonable possibility: the postwar GI Bill period of American colleges was a time of massive expansion and flux. It's not at all impossible that the origin of the word was indeed "drunk spelled backwards" and that this origin was first lost, then later rediscovered by the same sorts of students who'd invented the word in the first place. Certainly the Pratchett example is one of parallel formation.

It's not as if knurd isn't a natural category, after all. We self-select, and self-identify. If we don't, others do it for us.

The Vacant Lot

[Cross-posted to WAAGNFNP]

Our house on Ironwood Drive, in Donelson Tennessee, in the 1950s, was a typical example of post-War construction, cinder block walls, asbestos exterior shingles, and shoddy construction. My parents discovered years after purchase that the overflow pipe from the attic water heater didn’t actually exist; there was a short pipe in the attic and another short pipe beneath the house and nothing in-between. “Shoddy” doesn’t actually cover something like that, since it was pure fraud to fool the building inspector. There was something similar with the septic tank, which, after we’d left, turned out to be covered only with plywood that finally rotted through, much to the distress of subsequent inhabitants.

It was an “all-electric” house, electric stove and electric “radiant” heaters that were nothing but wire wound around ceramic cores. The heating and cooling expansion made little clicking noises whenever they turned on or off. The electricity was cheap, though, courtesy of the TVA, a fact that made Goldwater’s loss of Tennessee in 1964 inevitable. He’d gone of record as wanting to privatize TVA, even saying he’d “sell it for a dollar” if he could. The voters of Tennessee thought that the fight against socialism could maybe be first started in another state, for example, Arizona, where there were plenty of Federal water projects to privatize first. The Senator from Arizona never quite grasped that logic.

Before tossing up the masses of houses, the developers had done some landscaping, which is to say that they’d bulldozed the tops off the hills and used them to fill in the gullies. One of these landfills was in our back yard, where some trees had been half buried, but still managed to grow. So the soil on the downslope was rich (for that part of Tennessee), while the soil around the house proper was not.

The slope started about halfway to the property line in the back yard, then leveled off in what we always called “The Vacant Lot.” The nearby roads were twisty turny, and the vacant lot was an orphan plot, surrounded by hastily built homes on their hastily graded lots, but it had no direct access to any road. I have no idea who owned it; possibly the power company, since we also were graced with a nice, high transmission tower only a few hundred yards away.

The lot was where the debris from the construction had been dumped, as I vaguely recall. I recall more vividly the lot clearing operation that the neighborhood mounted sometime after we moved it. It culminated in an enormous bonfire, fueled by the leftovers, some of it entire tree trunks, one of which burned for days after the bonfire was over and which still wasn’t completely consumed. It left a charcoal husk that seemed huge at the time, though I’ll guess it was chest high to someone who is only four feet tall. Nevertheless, it was there for years afterwards, on a little ridge-let behind some houses that were behind us. The little ridge was cool because there was a full ‘dozer cut in it, so I can say with authority that our particular area had layers of sandstone under it, with clay sometimes sandwiched between those.

After the clearing, the vacant lot went through what I now know as ecological succession, first weeds, then short bushes, finally small trees, though we kids tended to cut down the small trees, using the ever popular “machete,” which I believe was actually a WWII vintage bayonet. I recall it as being Bill’s property, Bill being the alpha male of our particular group, one year older than me, and notably larger and more physical. As the weeds grew, we used the machete and other cutting tools to create paths, then sometimes tunnels through the weeds, culminating in hidey holes of various kinds that appeal to children before the age of reason.

I think there was another weed clearing, years later, after I’d started school, because my memories of the vacant lot later show a less jungle-like terrain, though some of it is probably also just physical growth, with we kids “growing like weeds” and, if not outpacing the actual weeds, holding our own.

One gray day in winter, my sister and I were playing out in the back yard, then down into the vacant lot, since we could go pretty far that way and not disobey the dictum of her not crossing any streets. Given our ages, it was probably a matter of me playing and her tagging along. Or maybe she was out exploring and I was being a good brother and making sure she didn’t get into trouble. I’d guess that I was somewhere around 7-9 and she would have been 5-7, so either of those was plausible.

I don’t remember how it was that we came to look into the tool shed of the people who lived all the way on the other side of the vacant lot, at the corner of Cottonwood and Sinbad. We were definitely trespassing, though without felonious intent. In any event, the thing that trumps all other memories of the day was the monkey.

It was young; I’m pretty sure of that. I don’t know what kind it was, but I can say that its arms were very long. I don’t remember if it had a tail, so it could even have been a chimpanzee, though I doubt it.

It was shivering from the cold, and it climbed onto my back, no doubt trying to get a little warmth, and maybe also because young primates ride their mother’s back. I heard its breathing, because it wheezed. I imagine that it had a respiratory infection and I doubt it lived much longer after that.

I now know, of course, that the way that monkeys were captured in the wild is to shoot their mothers. They were then loaded into cages, shipped to foreign lands, then sold, as “pets,” often to owners who had no more knowledge of how to care for them than did the owner of the unfortunate simian that I met briefly that day. Maybe it was an impulse buy, later repented, but without an exit strategy.

It’s a long chain of accountability, and it’s ever so easy for everyone in it to shift the blame. The pet owners don’t know how the system works. The store owners are only meeting the demand. The hunters are just trying to make a living, and besides, they’re only animals.

The monkey in the tool shed, of course, immediately peed on my back, and I peeled him off of me and we put him back into the shed and closed the door. I was pretty anxious to get back home and clean up, after all. We didn’t tell anyone about it because we were snooping where we had no business being. And I rarely think about the way the monkey looked at me, or how human his eyes looked, and how much misery was in them, or that we might have done something for him if we hadn’t been afraid of the consequences.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Helix #5

I promised a review of Helix #5 and it's taken me ginormous (to use a recently approved word) time to get to it, as I am in the middle of starting up a new job and trying to make it appear as though I'm worth employing.

To cases then, and I'll report that I'm still impressed with "The Center of the Universe," by Eugie Foster. I also have to report a very odd thing. For some reason, probably because I was interrupted for some reason, the first time I read it I stopped well before the actual end of the story, at the lines:

"Sleep tugged at my eyelids, although I knew if I surrendered to it, I would wake to Marc's flashlight and the beginning of our estrangement. As consciousness reeled away, I wondered how I knew."

I apparently then, for some time, forgot that this was not the actual end of the story. This made it a substantially different story that it is, but not a worse one, just different, more poignant, and less uplifting, so to speak. One the other hand, once alerted to this oddity, (and having finished the story) I found three other potential endings, at least two of them major downers. I know this is about at writer-knurd as it gets, but it enhances my appreciation for the story as it is. And, as I noted in my previous mention of it, it's entirely possible to read this story as purely realistic; there isn't a single fantasy element to it that cannot be explained as taking place in the POV character's head.

By contrast, "A Mighty Fortress" by Brenda Clough, has science fiction elements aplenty, none of which are necessary to the story. Even more than in "The Center of the Universe," all the real story takes place inside someone's head (a pretty creepy head, it's true) and the story itself isn't really tied to a time or place. The setting could have been historical, contemporary, or set in some magical fantasy universe rather than a science fictional one. So I'm given to wonder how this story would work without the distancing effect of science fiction.

By contrast, and again, this is probably and idiosyncratic reading, in "The Shadow Postulates" by Yoon Ha Lee the distancing effect seems central to the story. In fact, distance is created on several fronts, a fantasy universe with echoes of ancient China, several plot elements based on mathematics (with the shades of Riemann and Poincaré raising eyebrows at the folderol), plus the solution of an old mystery concerning persons long dead (a nod to The Flanders Panel, perhaps?). By contrast, the unrequited (and forbidden) love seems very touching.

There's not much to say about "A Sacred Institution" by Esther Friesner, except that it is both literally and figuratively a shaggy dog story, and its caricature of a bible thumper with political ambitions did not, to me, have the ring of satirical truth. A story such as this stands or falls on the quality of the humor, and I'm falling back on the advice of Woody Allen: Tell funnier jokes.

It's probably unfair to group the last three stories together: "Monsters of Abiding Grace" by Samantha Henderson, "The Brides of Heaven" by N.K. Jemisin, and "Funeral Games" by Margaret Ronald. Yet there is a similar feel to all of them, with thematic echoes of dead children, apocalypse, and mass murder. It's pretty easy to identify the sources of inspiration here (and pretty easy to be wrong about it, of course). However, the only one of the three that deals with Islam or even religion, directly is the Jemisin story, and curiously, it is the most optimistic of the three. There may be a lesson in that, but I'm pretty sure I'm not the guy to interpret the syllabus.

As it happens that's also the case for the poetry, in this or any other issue. I believe it's good to have a place to publish it, and I may read it when I care to, but I don't write it and I don't review it, so my apologies to anyone who might think my lack of a stated opinion reflects on them in any way. I assure you all that it does not.

Finally, another nod to Guest Editor Melanie Fletcher and Senior Editor William Sanders, the former because I think it's cool that she took her own staff photo, and the latter to reassure myself that I can, in fact, learn to spell his name (and don't y'all love inside jokes?).

Helix is viewer supported, just like public television, but without all the Rockefeller money. But if anyone out there has money, you should give them some, especially if you're a Rockefeller.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


[another post pertaining to a WAAGNFNP discussion.

One of the things that surprised me the most when I first began to have significant contact with people in the actual business world was how many of them were Marxists.

Not that they were hankering for the revolution, mind you, nor expecting the establishment of the "dictatorship of the proletariat." Indeed, they very much wanted to avoid having the "workers of the world unite." But they had bought into the entire theory of exploitation and class warfare. In fact, they thought it their jobs to exploit workers for the good of the company, or more accurately, for the good of themselves.

Once you get this sort of mindset going, you get all sorts of pernicious effects. Replacing high-wage workers with low wage workers or replacing a receptionist with a security badge lock on the door, those become the goal, whether or not it actually adds to profitability. Now I admit, often the accounting makes it look like you've saved money doing these things, but often you've just replaced a fully accounted cost with a hidden cost, such as the reduction in security and convenience that goes with getting rid of the receptionist, or the increased management overhead that happens when you outsource the job to Bangalore.

Investors and market analysts also hold to the Marxist theory. They look at a company, suggest that it has too many workers, and hold the price down until the firm lays off some large fraction of its work force. Often, this actually causes substantial loses to the firm, alibied by saying that the "write-offs" are "short term" and the "restructuring" will lead to long term profitability. Of course these are untestable theories; if the company instead goes into a death spiral because it lost the workers that were needed to continue the organization, the investment analysts instead blame the firm for not having laid off the workers soon enough.

But these action do have a more general effect: that of continuing the ongoing "commodification" of labor. Managers hate to be in the situation of selling commodities, but they love to be in the position of purchasing commodities, especially when the commodity is labor. It’s much easier to manage people who are afraid of losing their jobs, much easier to negotiate when you’ve got the threat of moving the factory to Mexico.

Yet I have seen, time after time, poor management decisions bailed out by the quality of labor expended, where a damn fool plan managed to scrape by because the people tasked with carrying out the plan were smart and flexible and managed to invent work-arounds and clever schemes for bailing the thing out. Of course it was still the managers who took the credit for success, and who blamed underlings when something failed. The phrase "kiss up, kick down" certainly rang the bell, didn't it?

I've also known quite a few good managers in my time. I respect the job enough to have tried to avoid managerial responsibility practically every time it has been offered to me. I don't have the temperment and dedication to be a good manager, and I don't have the stomach to be a bad one. I do know that the most important thing about good management is that it is not bad management, and that the class-war managers I've encountered have been among the very worst.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Café Lena and Fox Hollow

One bright afternoon at RPI, my friend Tom came in and said, “Utah Phillips is playing at Café Lena tonight. Want to go?”

“Okay,” I argued, and off we went. Thank God Café Lena wasn’t in Denver.

Café Lena was in Saratoga, NY, only about 30 miles up the Adirondack Northway (I-87) from Troy. Drive time was about 45 minutes, and the Utah Phillips show was the first of many. It wasn’t the only folk venue around, but it was the most venerable, and I went back a lot.

That first concert would have been during my junior year, 1970-71. In the summer of ’71 I also attended the Fox Hollow Folk Festival near Petersburg, NY. That one is easy to date, because it was the last Fox Hollow before the death of its founder, Bob “Fiddler” Beers, in 1972. I went to Fox Hollow until I left the East Coast, in 1975. The next year, 1972 was the Year of the Northern Lights, visible during the clear mountain nights that year. In 1974, Nixon resigned during the festival and you have never seen such a happy bunch of folkies.

I’m not always sure in which venue I saw which performers; often it was probably both. So I’ll just give the usual list of those who come to mind:

Utah Phillips, Dave van Ronk, Michael Cooney, David Bromberg, Jean Ritchie, Gordon Bok, Leon Redbone, Patrick Sky, Putnam String County Band, Bill Spence, Bottle Hill, Billy Vanaver, Alan Stowell, Jim Ringer, Mary McCaslin, John Roberts and Tony Barrand, Sarah Grey, Jean Redpath, The Boys of the Lough, Bill Staines, Horald Griffiths, Jim Kweskin…

You know, I’d probably be able to get a better list if I had the complete listing of Rounder and Folkways Records circa 1974. There doesn’t seem to be a performers list of Fox Hollow anywhere on the Web, and the Café Lena list is just that, a list, with no dates attached.

I do remember a few acts that were unquestionably specific to Fox Hollow, like Alhaji Bai Konte, a Gambian musician, who played the Kora. On the other hand, I have specific Café Lena memories of Horrald Griffiths and Dave van Ronk. Many of the others, like Michael Cooney, I saw in both places. And there are the acts that I remember, but the names are lost to memory, like the high school steel drum band, and the bagpipers, and man, did the team up between those two wake the dead.

There was some tension at the time between the “virtuosos” and the “folksy” type musicians, one that had some repercussions in the management of Fox Hollow around that time. This was not entirely unlike the format fracas at WRPI that also happened around that time. One of the Lena waitresses, Mary, was a bit perturbed at the overabundance of string band and fiddle players at Fox Hollow in 1972, but I was pretty firmly in the musicology camp. Fortunately, there were a lot of performers who were both.

Then too, there was all the politics. Utah Phillips can make the Wobblies sound fun, which is more than the Wobblies can do, and it’s sometimes a little creepy to hear middle class computer programmers singing about Joe Hill. Still, though I was never a leftist, except in the classical sense of not being in favor of hereditary aristocracies, in the early 1970s it wasn’t hard to find common ground with people who thought that ordinary people were getting screwed. Truth to tell, it’s pretty easy to support that opinion at any time and any place.

I have a number of treasures that came out of that period and those venues. One is the appreciation of folk music in the global sense. For a time at least, Fox Hollow was a confluence of world folk musicology, with everything from Balkan vocal groups to African M’bira to French Canadian accordion dance troupes. When Barnett and I branched out from the Indian music show on WRPI to a World Music exploration, the Upstate New York folk music scene was doubtless a major catalyst.

A slightly more tangible result came from the fact that a good bit of the sound technician staff at Fox Hollow came from WRPI engineering. Through a tangled web of acquaintance, that is how I happen to be in possession of a tape dub of a singular performance, Billy Vanaver backed by Alan Stowell on “Mad Tom of Bedlam.” It’s quite extraordinary, and maybe someday I’ll get permission to upload it. Until then, you’re just going to have to envy me my good fortune.

Monday, July 16, 2007


[Being a continuation of a tangent begun on WAAGNFNP]

In The Deerslayer, one of the Leatherstocking Tales, by James Fenimore Cooper, Natty Bumppo, as part of a marksmanship competition, puts a musketball into the bullseye hole left by a previous contestant. Moreover, he knows he's done it, and tells the judges to dig both balls out of the wooden target, which they do.

The feat itself is possible, just as a hole-in-one in golf is possible, but it can't really be a product of marksmanship, as muskets simply aren't that accurate. Moreover, the calling of the shot is similar to calling a hole-in-one for a green that is not within sight. I mean, unrifled firearms are really inaccurate, and simply hitting a target at a distance is a challenge.

The story got used later in a (probably fake) "autobiography" of Davy Crockett, and was in one of the episodes in the Disney Davy Crockett series that sparked the Crockett craze in the mid-1950s (I had a coonskin cap, as did almost all my friends). Of course the tale itself has echoes of the "splitting an arrow with an arrow" stories of Robin Hood and practically every other legendary archer.

Anecdotes easily morph into tall tales, and heroes evolve into Heroes, as the barely plausible slips over the line from improbable into the impossible. Eventually Achilles becomes invulnerable (save for his heel), St. George slays a dragon, and Pecos Bill rides a tornado.

Odysseus, nevertheless, remains identifiably human through the Odyssey (albeit with the occasional godly assistance in stringing a bow), but Hercules is a demi-god, able to shoulder Atlas' burden for a while, kill the hydra, and "change the course of mighty rivers" to clean out the Aegean Stables.

And so we come to the comic book superhero.

Yes, it’s SUPERMAN, strange visitor from another planet, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel with his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for Truth, Justice and the American Way!

Superman began as "merely" superhuman, able to lift motorcars, bend steel, survive bullets, and leap over buildings. But his powers ramped up continually, and additional powers kept getting added to the mix, x-ray vision, super speed, heat vision, supersensitive hearing, breath that could blow out fires or freeze a lake solid in seconds. Plus, he could really fly, not just over buildings, but into space, and fast enough to travel in time. By the 1950s, Mort Weisinger's Superman was lighting dead stars with his heat vision.

So they gave him vulnerabilities, like kryptonite and magic. He had to keep his Superman identity secret, otherwise his "friends" would be in danger, somehow, from his "enemies," who were sometimes just criminals who kept trying to rob banks in the face of a guy who could destroy the world if he so chose.

Not that he would ever do so, of course, because of that "truth, justice, and the American Way," thing. It's just not the American Way to destroy the world.

So the middle period Superman stories tended to be about Lois Lane trying yet again to prove that Clark Kent was Superman (The Comics Code forbade the tactic of just hopping into bed with Clark, which brings up the interesting question of whether old Supes would pretend to be a poor lover to throw her off the track, or if, in fact, he would be a poor lover. These are the questions that fan boys ponder). Or the stories involved Lex Luthor finding some new thing that he hadn't put kryptonite in before. Or Superman had to trick Mr. Mxyzptlk into saying his name backwards again. Or Superman's powers would become somehow unmanageable, usually due to red kryptonite.

Occasionally, some Kryptonian criminal would escape from the phantom zone. Those, plus the citizens of the bottled city of Kandor were the only survivors of Krypton. The Kandorians had Brainiac to thank for their survival, so apart from Supergirl and Krypto the Superdog, the only other Kryptonian survivors were either criminals or the victims of a criminal. The death of Krypton was nothing if not ironic.

They ramped old Supe's powers down a bit after that, so he could at least have adversaries that he could fight without planetary destruction being the logical result. But even now, there are only occasional stories about some of the aspects of the limitations of power.

One is that while Superman may be more powerful than anyone, he isn't ubiquitous. Even at super speed there are limitations on how quickly he can get a distress call (one of the original reasons for his newspaper reporter identity), and how to triage the crises that present themselves. There was an episode of Lois and Clark, the television series with Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain where Lois got Superman's powers and almost broke down under the sheer responsibility of it all. What was never made clear in that episode is that Clark/Superman had long ago had to come to terms with a simple fact: any downtime he took probably cost lives. In the time he spent having a cup of coffee, there were probably dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people dying that he might have saved.

In one of Kurt Busiak's Astro City comics, this is made clear by showing a day in the life of The Samaritan, the Astro City version of Superman. It's a day sliced into microseconds, with barely enough time for a semblance of life between the duties of saving the days of others. It's reminiscent of my favorite Superman story from the 1950s, entitled "All the Troubles of the World" that ends with a party at Clark Kent's apartment building. He's surreptitiously helped practically every person there at one point or another, and everyone is happy except for him. He's thinking something like, "Mrs. Jenkins is 4B is having troubles paying the rent this month, but she's too proud to ask anyone for help. I've got to find some way to get the money to her without her knowing where it's from." And another person is thinking, "Everyone here seems to be having a good time except for that poor Mr. Kent. Sometimes it seems like he's carrying all the troubles of the world on his shoulders."

In one of Eliot S! Maggin's Superman novels, he has the Man of Steel grappling with the idea of "moral hazard." An LPG terminal in Metropolis explodes and while he's dealing with it, Superman is thinking that this is one of the problems of having Superman in the world: that people do dangerous and reckless things because they know that Superman is around to protect them from the consequences of their actions. That marvelous irony, that we know that in a world without Superman people still do such dangerous and reckless things, is one of the best criticisms of the idea of moral hazard that I've ever seen.

But the greatest downside to extreme power has rarely been explored in comics. Yes, occasionally there is a nod to "power corrupts" but seldom is it noted that power corrupts not just its possessor, but also those around him. And power also is a magnet for corruption. I can think of almost no stories that deal with the idea of Superman being tricked into using his powers for immoral purposes.

There was a story some while back where someone sets up a situation that should have resulted in Clark Kent doing a reportorial expose, a noble plan that was wrecked because Superman decided to get personally involved (the original manipulator was unaware that Clark is Superman). So a small part of a much larger corruption was taken down by Superman, but the big fish were lost, because Superman himself has no legal standing, and only the law—and exposure—can really deal with large criminal organizations.

The larger issue of just how much trust should be placed in iconic "heroes" wielding superpowers is beginning to float to the surface in comics generally, however. The "grim and gritty" explorations of the id was a feature of comics in the mid-1980s, but the newer versions are more numerous and more varied, even in Superman, who seems to be currently dealing with a magical time-traveling fellow who believes that, unless the world can be made to distrust Superman, Armageddon will surely follow. Another theme that has occasionally surfaced is that the super-heroes do not, and cannot afford to, entirely trust each other. Each one of them has been either out of control or under malevolent control at some point, so many of them have contingency plans against such rogue events. Batman in particular had a file on how to defeat every one of the other members of The Justice League, just in case, including a kryptonite ring for use against Superman. Lex Luthor had a kryptonite ring for a while as well, but it gave him cancer as I recall.

Over in the Marvel Universe, or at least a variation of it, The Ultimates, the message is even more overtly political, with the other countries in the world ganging up to counter the U.S. monopoly on super-powered beings. War becomes the inevitable result. And I'm told that Spiderman once told Mary Jane that every superhero had a plan of attack against every other superhero, just in case.

Popular culture is never "mere entertainment." At the end of the day, "a movie is just a movie" and "a comic book is just a comic book," still mean that both show the fantasies that people want to believe in, or are afraid might be true.

The United States currently spends more on its military than the rest of the world's countries put together, although that figure is a little tricky, since the U.S. does not have anywhere near that kind of superiority in men-at-arms. Still, everyone knows that we have the military might to bring down any other government (though not necessarily replace it). We could destroy civilization and perhaps humanity with an unbridled nuclear tantrum.

One thing that the Clinton Presidency made clear was that there now exists a political faction in the U.S. that holds any President who is not part of the Conservative Movement to be illegitimate, and subject to extra-legal attempts to bring him down. One thing that the Bush Presidency has shown is the danger of having a President who is a committed Movement Conservative, willing to use that old pulp trope: "bend the rules in order to get the job done."

The rest of the world now knows pretty well that "truth, justice, and the American Way," have become empty phrases. The Superpower is under malevolent mind control, or worse. Perhaps sanity will return. But if it doesn't, the real question is, is Batman still holding onto that kryptonite ring, or would it be, in the end, Lex Luthor who does the deed?

Saturday, July 14, 2007


I remember a sequence in The Flash comics from only a few years ago. This would be the Wally West Flash, after the Barry Allen Flash had, um, "merged with the speed force," which is to say, died, albeit a comic book death (and they seem to be about to bring him back). He was Saving the Universe when it happened, so it would have been unseemly to bring him back too quickly.

Live fast, resurrect slow, that's Barry Allen.

Anyway, the gag, to use a movie stunt term, involved Wally West sitting in a movie theater with his girlfriend when suddenly everything freezes. Everyone is a statue; it's dead quiet, and the movie is stuck on a single frame. Wally thinks, "What the hell?" then he notices a slight pressure on the back of his neck. It's a bullet; someone has tried to shoot him, but as soon as it entered his "speed force aura" his body switched to super speed and there you are.

The speed force aura is also what keeps his clothes and skin from being burned off when he's moving really fast, and also allows him to pick things (and people) up and carry them without them also suffering death by super speed. Very useful, that speed force aura.

In Justice League Unlimited, the cartoon series, the Flash is always getting hit or even knocked unconscious by folks that really should never be able to lay a finger on him. That's a failure of writing, of course. The movie theater gag did kick it up a notch; traditionally the Flash had to "get up to speed" as it were, so there was a window of opportunity for the bad guys to get him. (Phil Foglio once told me about a character he'd invented—but has never actually used, unfortunately—called "Tube Man": very powerful but who takes several minutes to warm up). But the JLU stuff sometimes has The Flash taken out while he's running, and that's just lame. You might be able to hit him with something that moves at the speed of light, although tracking him should still be an issue, but otherwise, the whole point of the Flash is that he's faster than anyone or anything else.

The Flash can be, but usually isn't, a vehicle for philosophical ruminations on the nature of time and humanity's relationship to it. As the Jay Garrick Flash said once, the point of being The Flash is that there are always enough hours in the day. Need to learn some branch of case law? Done in fifteen minutes. Build a house? A minute and thirty seconds. Study for that calculus test? Do it while everyone else is walking to class.

But it's a lonely time there in the speed force. Apart from the occasional carrying of the fair damsel away from the exploding bomb, The Flash is doing his job in a world of statues, reminiscent of the Arthur C. Clarke story, "All the Time in the World.

There have been variations of the super speed power that had more of a downside (though none greater than the Clarke story, I think). In Wally Wood's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, the character Lightning was using up his actual lifespan while doing his super speedster act, so he was aging more rapidly than his compatriots. The same was true for those under the influence of "tempus fugit" pills in Heinlein's The Puppet Masters. (Aside: there was also an episode of the 1960 television show The Man and the Challenge that involved a drug that hyperaccelerated reaction times. I'm only scratching a trivia itch with this tidbit).

The potential for loneliness inherent in the character of The Flash is interesting, and it's also interesting to wonder if that aspect of it has influenced the way that The Flash has been incarnated over the years. There have been more versions of The Flash, more different people carrying on the tradition, than any other character in DC Comics, (excepting Green Lantern, who became part of a universe-spanning Corps). Moreover, Flash's tend to get married. I doubt that the writers were consciously making the contrast between the need for companionship and the loneliness of the Power, but the writing is often smarter than the writer, and I speak from experience.

My friend Ben Sano also notes the interesting contrast between The Flash and one of his most formidable foes, Vandal Savage. Savage is immortal (though they've screwed around with that recently, and not to the character's improvement), so he has the complementary power to The Flash: they both have all the time they need. Savage, of course, has seldom been written well; over the centuries, his tactics should depend heavily on waiting out the opposition and, perhaps, compound interest. On the other hand, part of his deal is that he is a savage, having been born something like 50,000 years ago.

The time available to either The Flash or Vandal Savage (one compressed, one extended) also allows an examination of the some of the same issues raised in some variations of Supersmart. They had essentially unlimited time for learning, but learning, per se, does not equate to intelligence, insight, or judgment. The Flash may have "lived" the equivalent of many centuries while in the speed force, but can still be socially awkward, because little of it was in interaction with other people. Vandal Savage may have lived for 50,000 years, but he's never going to stare at the equations of atomic state transitions and invent the laser. The extra time can only be spent on the things you can do, not those things you can't.

Still, there are so many possibilities that never get explored, because there are only so many hours in the day. Except for The Flash.

What, did you think this essay was going to be about femto-second laser pulses?

Friday, July 13, 2007


Science fiction, being a literature that is fundamentally for geeks and knurds about geeks and knurds written by geeks and knurds, has had a lot of stories about characters who possess superhuman intelligence. Sometimes the characters are aliens (Clarkes' Childhood's End), sometimes machines (Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), sometimes "the next stage of human evolution (van Vogt's Slan)." Sometimes they are born that way (Shiras' "In Hiding"), sometimes somebody made them that way (Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon") and sometimes it's some sort of accident (Anderson's Brain Wave).

Of course, it's not just the psi powers that can muddy the waters. In Heinlein's "Gulf" we're presented with "Speedtalk," a language that follows the principles of General Semantics and makes your thinking better because, um, well, because General Semantics is so cool.

That leads us to another problem with the stories of the supersmart. Once given the gift of supersmartness, the protagonists often come around to various views, opinions, and theories that happen to coincide with either the author, John. W. Campbell Jr., or the average Analog reader, depending. Often it's all three, at least in a certain (and obvious) category of story. But one should also bear in mind the case of the translation of "Flowers for Algernon" to the big screen, where Sterling Silliphant's screenplay inserted all sorts of cliché's of mid-60s liberalism into Charlie's dialog.

The real difficulty is that it's very hard to write convincingly about someone who is smarter than you, and it's really, really hard to write convincingly about someone who is smarter than anyone who ever lived.

So there are various cheats. One cheat is to mash together all the tales of mental prodigies into one package. Good Will Hunting was one such. Math genius, plus eidetic memory, plus (apparently) total logical comprehension of everything he read, so he could put down a college student for just regurgitating his textbooks, without himself just regurgitating some more textbooks.

Also, he was really good in a bar fight.

There's a similar problem with the TV show, Numb3rs, where Charlie Eppes is a math genius (and former prodigy) who uses mathematics in all sorts of crime-solving ways. The show's advisors do a decent job of making the math realistic, but what they can't do is make it realistic that one single mathematician would be an expert in so many areas of applied math, all the more so because he was a math prodigy, and math prodigies tend not to be in the applied areas, but rather in things like number theory.

The focus of the supermind story is also important. Often the focus is on the genius' relationship to society and the people around him, so it's often an extrapolation of the gifted or geeky readers' experiences. One important question is whether or not the story offers some useful lessons to said gifted geek.

I remember being struck by one passage in George O. Smith's The Fourth R (which turns out to be available from the Project Gutenberg, imagine my delight). A wise old man named Judge Carver is speaking to the protagonist, who's been artificially given a full adult's education by a "brain machine":

"Let's take the statistics first. You're four-feet eleven-inches tall, you weigh one-hundred and three pounds, and you're a few weeks over fourteen. I suppose you know that you've still got one more spurt of growth, sometimes known as the post-puberty-growth. You'll probably put on another foot in the next couple of years, spread out a bit across the shoulders, and that fuzz on your face will become a collection of bristles. I suppose you think that any man in this room can handle you simply because we're all larger than you are? Possibly true, and one of the reasons why we can't give you a ticket and let you proclaim yourself an adult. You can't carry the weight. But this isn't all. Your muscles and your bones aren't yet in equilibrium. I could find a man of age thirty who weighed one-oh-three and stood four-eleven. He could pick you up and spin you like a top on his forefinger just because his bones match his muscles nicely, and his nervous system and brain have had experience in driving the body he's living in."

"Could be, but what has all this to do with me? It does not affect the fact that I've been getting along in life."

"You get along. It isn't enough to 'get along.' You've got to have judgment. You claim judgment, but still you realize that you can't handle your own machine. You can't even come to an equitable choice in selecting some agency to handle your machine. You can't decide upon a good outlet. You believe that proclaiming your legal competence will provide you with some mysterious protection against the wolves and thieves and ruthless men with political ambition--that this ruling will permit you to keep it to yourself until you decide that it is time to release it. You still want to hide. You want to use it until you are so far above and beyond the rest of the world that they can't catch up, once you give it to everybody. You now object to my plans and programs, still not knowing whether I intend to use it for good or for evil--and juvenile that you are, it must be good or evil and cannot be an in-between shade of gray. Men are heroes or villains to you; but I must say with some reluctance that the biggest crooks that ever held public office still passed laws that were beneficial to their people. There is the area in which you lack judgment, James. There and in your blindness."


"Blindness," repeated Judge Carter. "As Mark Twain once said, 'When I was seventeen, I was ashamed at the ignorance of my father, but by the time I was twenty-one I was amazed to discover how much the old man had learned in four short years!' Confound it, James, you don't yet realize that there are a lot of things in life that you can't even know about until you've lived through them. You're blind here, even though your life has been a solid case of encounter with unexpected experiences, one after the other as you grew. Oh, you're smart enough to know that you've got to top the next hill as soon as you've climbed this one, but you're not smart enough to realize that the next hill merely hides the one beyond, and that there are still higher hills beyond that stretching to the end of the road for you--and that when you've finally reached the end of your own road there will be more distant hills to climb for the folks that follow you."

Mickey Spillane did a similar turn in a book called The Twisted Thing, but he had the gizmo make the young boy into, mentally, a real adult, supersmart, but still locked inside the body of a boy. It's a horror study really, and doesn't end well. But what caught my attention in that one is that the supermind notes that Mike Hammer, not really the brightest guy in the world, manages to almost keep up, owing to the fact that Hammer is a specialist in criminal matters, and specialization allows lesser talents to equal or even surpass greater ones who cannot specialize in everything.

These are real lessons, and not just applicable to someone who is supersmart, but even to us folks who are middling to very smart. And ultimately, it's a lot better to pull such lessons from wish-fulfillment fantasies than such panderings as "they're just jealous of your intelligence" and "if everyone were really smart, they'd agree with you about stuff."

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Conquest of Life

It’s always dangerous to revisit books you liked in your youth. Nevertheless, I’ve recently reread Conquest of Life by Adam Lukens. I first read this sometime between 1960 and 1962, so I would have been 10-11. That means that I missed, among other things, some pretty obvious references to sex and further hints of sexual deviance.

“Adam Lukens” was the nom de plume of Diane Detzer de Reyna, which pretty much exhausts my knowledge of the matter, though I think I remember Dick Lupoff once telling me that she’d been from Florida. I was already aware of the idea of “authorship” by then, so I also read several other books by “Lukens,” including one I’ve not managed to obtain, Sons of the Wolf (about werewolves who are part of a movie production on Mercury, as I recall).

The words-in-a-row writing of COL is pretty good, with dialog that’s believably from human beings, provided you don’t consider how far in the future the book is supposed to be. How far? The heroine, Shorty, is from one of the star colonies. Earth is now, well, basically a sort of theme park, the theme being Hedonism. Say it’s a planet-wide version of New Orleans (before Katrina), although one never gets a sense of planetary, or even urban scale. The final “battle” scene, for example, consists of a few hundred people fighting.

In fact, there are a number of traits in the book that bespeak a southern U.S. origin, including the sparseness of the cast (even the urban south was pretty small town in 1960), as well as the basic setup.

The setup is, Shorty has inherited “Kris” an artificial man, a la Frankenstein, in that he’s manufactured from the body parts of dead humans. His memories have been wiped and he’s conditioned to obey his master or mistress. He can feel emotions but is constrained not to show them. He’s also “infinite” i.e. unaging and possibly immortal, except that, after 30-40 years, the artificial men become “unstable” and are usually destroyed, i.e. killed.

Kris is 40 years old. We learn from internal monologues that he’d like to die, there being no real attraction in being an immortal slave.

Shorty immediately decides that the artificial men are people, and sets out to prove it, which she does in remarkably short order, by, among other things, getting Kris to slap her. It isn’t quite as coarse as this in the book, I’m just making part of the superstructure a little more obvious.

Shorty then goes about collecting as many of the “undependable” artificial men as she can find, soon filling the mansion that she has inherited, and which she and her uncle, cousin, etc. live. During this process, a visit from a star captain who is obviously smitten by her, makes plain that she has some, um, intimacy issues, caused by a trauma (vaguely described) that took place out in the Colonies. So she cringes at the captain’s touch, but has no such problem with Kris or the other artificial men.

Okay, that little bit went right past me when I was 11.

Most of Earth’s inhabitants, or at least those near Shorty and Kris, are devotees of “Night Palace Life” which is basically a sybaritic existence devoted to mindless pleasure, or sometimes mindless destruction. At one point, some Night Palace “Playmates” toss a firebomb into a plastic jungle structure near Shorty’s house and nearly kill her. Kris, of course, saves her life. Events soon swing out of control, because it’s getting out that Shorty is demonstrating that the artificial men are actually real people, which might very well throw a monkey wrench into Night Palace life, given that one of the main jobs given to the artificial men is that of gigolo.

Again, at 11, it didn’t occur to me to wonder why all the artificials were men, and their users were all women. Of course, if it were otherwise, it would have been a considerably different story.

Anyway, their lifestyle threatened, the “Playmates” launch an assault on Shorty’s home. The artificial men, led by Kris, fend them off, but Shorty is killed during the fighting. Kris goes to the developer and demands that he put Shorty through the process, all except the memory wipe and obedience conditioning, of course. Shorty comes out the other side as “infinite” as Kris.

So they live happily ever after. Literally.

Well, there we have it. A man, stronger, smarter, better looking, and practically immortal, who is locked inside of his own conditioning, unable to express emotion, and despairing of life. A woman who has her own demons, risks everything to reach the man, unlocking his potential and winning his undying love.

There are, of course, more plot holes than I can enumerate, none of which I noticed when I was 11, and actually, none of which bother me particularly now. This is an allegory as much as anything else, and repays the rereading.

Ah, one other thing. One of the artificial men is found to have serious whip marks on his back. Just another echo from the Old South.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


When I became a publications knurd at the Rensselear Engineer, there was a traditional path of succession, Technical Editor to Managing Editor, to Senior Editor. Each term was Spring/Fall, so there was a semester's overlap with the incoming and outgoing Senior Editor, and at the other end, the selection of a Technical Editor in the spring of their freshman year put them on track to becoming the Senior Editor two years later.

I stayed at RPI for two years of graduate school, but I kept my distance from The Engineer, not wanting to second guess the editors or otherwise be a pain and besides, I was having fun (mostly) playing radio. However, I was available if anyone wanted my advice, and one of them, Russ, asked my opinion on a couple of occasions, and on another, asked me to interview Ralph Nader, who was speaking at RPI, as well as several other venues in the Albany district on Earth Day. That's a story for another time, perhaps.

Russ was the middle editor of the three I saw during my grad school days, and the one that I had chosen as Technical Editor when I was Senior Editor. If you want to get picky, the decision was supposed to be made in consultation with the both the outgoing Senior Editor and the current Managing Editor. If you want to get pickier still, it was usually Hobson's Choice, and you were lucky if there was someone who was eager to take on the job. There was also the always present danger of flunkouts, although the Engineer wasn't nearly the cume killer that the Polytechnic (newspaper), the Bachelor/Unicorn (humor magazines), or Gorgon (literary magazine) managed to be.

Russ also asked my opinion about one particular article, about the Allman Brothers Band. The question was not about why an article about a rock band was going in the school's engineering magazine? As far as we were concerned, long standing policy was that if someone was willing to write something readable and wanted to put it in the Engineer, it was better than blank pages. Besides, the guy who wrote it was an engineer, so that clinched it.

No the question was about some of the quotes from band members, which contained some words that were scatological, as I recall. I don't remember any profanity (the Allman boys were southern and they did know the difference). Russ wondered if he should say anything about it, put a "rough language" warning, or whatever. I told him to just run it without comment, better to apologize later than up front, etc. and probably no one would care. The other school publications had already had their naughty word battles and hell, it was 1973 already.

I think they got maybe a single letter of complaint and Russ probably wrote the guy a nice letter of apology. Of maybe no one said anything. Like I said, those battles had already been fought to exhaustion.

Russ also asked my advice on what to say about the Editor that would follow him: Deb. As you may guess, Deb was female. Should he say something about it, maybe write an editorial?
And that was another one that I was tired of. The Women's Movement was in full flower around then, and I'd been seeing the "Look! It's a girl!" editorials from our sister (as it were) publications from other engineering schools for several years. It felt like it was getting old.

It also didn't seem fair, to be putting a spotlight on someone just for their gender, just a bit of additional pressure to add to the stuff about trying to do good work in an unpaid extracurricular activity.

Finally, and this was the real source of my discomfort, as long as things like this were matter for comment, then the basic program of equal opportunity for accomplishment was still far from its goal. I just wanted female participation in science and engineering to be unremarkable.

Russ took my advice and wrote an editorial about something else.

There were 50 freshmen women in my class at RPI, and about 1000 men. I understand that the fraction is now about 1/3, and the President of RPI is Shirley Ann Jackson, who was also President of the AAAS in 2004, and Chairman of the AAAS Board in 2005. She is, of course, a remarkable person, and a good sport about Alumni jokes and pranks as well, at least during Reunion Weekends. She still has our microphone, I think, and I can report that she's pretty good at impromptu karaoke.

I'll get to a review of the latest issue of Helix after I've had a chance to read all the stories (first glance: "The Center of the Universe" by Eugie Foster is one of those "fantasy or someone having fantasies?" stories that I like to talk about). All the stories are by women, and to his credit, William Sanders notes that such a thing is almost coincidental and should be unremarkable, though it isn't. And the guest editorial by Website Designer

Melanie Fletcher shows the right degree of annoyance that such a thing still bears remarking upon.

I mean, hell, it's not like this is 1973.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Clarke's Law

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It was actually Clarke’s Third Law, but it’s the one that caught hold. Clarke’s first two laws have more or less fallen into obscurity:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

It’s pretty easy to see why the first two laws aren’t cited very often: they distill down to “nothing is impossible,” which puts them into opposition to, oh, I don’t know, practically every other scientific law in existence. If everything is possible, then there are no rules, and science is about rules.

In any case, Law #3 is usually just called “Clarke’s Law” and it has annoyed me for years. It has a sort of faux profundity that evaporates as you try to figure out what it actually is supposed to mean. You’re supposed to have a good idea about what magic is, and it feeds a mental image of primitives baffled and awed by the technology of the Great White Hunter, the savages thinking that there must be some strong juju in the guns and flashlights.

That’s a stereotype, of course, and almost completely wrong to boot. My own take on magic can be found in my essay Killing the Goat.

In any case, even the stereotype is silly. If a stone age hunter gatherer thinks that something he doesn’t understand is magic, it would be because he thinks that everything he doesn’t understand is magic. But that just maps Clarke’s Law to the proposition that any technology that is sufficiently advanced that you don’t understand it is the same as something else that you don’t understand.

Well, as they say, duh.

But, in fact, to a product of western civilization secular humanism, things not understood are nevertheless assumed to be undiscovered science. The history of esp and psi research suggests that the opposite of Clarke’s Law is applicable to us westerners:

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

I’ve got a list of SF stories to back it up, but many of us, including me, aren't that fond of magic-as-science stories. The genre had its heyday, back in the 40s and 50s, and Larry Niven almost single handedly extended the thing past its sell by date with his "Magic Goes Away" stories. But I don't think I've seen a good one in years.

Anyway, I've long had my own variant of The Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from something that has no damn business working in the first place.

And I think I'll leave it at that.

Monday, July 9, 2007

N Moderation

There are reasons to suspect that science and engineering took a very different path over there: their limited understanding of nuclear weapons—they seem to think that nukes are roughly as easy to build as bottle rockets—suggests that nuclear fission may never have been developed on their timeline.Twilight Zone by Gregory Cochran, on evidence that members of the Bush Administration are from a parallel universe.

Just how hard is it to build a nuke? And what is the smallest amount of plutonium needed to build one?

The smallest nuclear weapon ever designed was the Davy Crockett, aka the W54 warhead, weighing 51 pounds with a variable yield supposedly from 10 to 250 tons of TNT equivalent. It was the last weapon ever atmospheric-tested by the U.S. and in its two tests, (Little Feller I and II) it yielded 22 and 18 tons of explosive power. At those yields, however, the explosive power was pretty much unimportant compared to the radiation the blast produced, lethal to 50% of unshielded personnel at 400 meters, 100% lethal at 300 meters.

There’s not a lot of unclassified information about the actual design of the W54, but some conjectures can be made about it just from the nature of the nuclear chemistry involved. A “bare critical” mass of plutonium, for example, weighs roughly 10 kg, but a neutron reflector reduces this by maybe a factor of two. A uranium reflector/tamper can also increase yield because some fast fission will take place in the reflector itself (at the cost of a time delay in the return of the neutrons to the explosive core). Beryllium also multiplies neutrons, undergoing “light fission” on exposure to high-energy particles of any kind, including neutrons, to produce, well, more neutrons. This is also at the expense of slowing the neutrons and thus retarding the rapid increase in neutron population that make a bomb go ka-boom.

But slowing neutrons is called “moderation” and slower neutrons tend to react more easily with nuclei (have a higher capture cross section) than fast neutrons. This is a consequence of quantum mechanics, where fast particles have a more certain position than do slow ones. Think of the slow neutrons as being more “fuzzy,” virtually bigger, if you will. So if there is a nearby nucleus that is “sticky” for neutrons, a slow neutron is more likely to glom onto it.

That is pretty much the principle of nuclear reactors, where neutrons are slowed down to better react with the fissile elements in the reactor. A mass that is sub-critical for fast neutrons can be more than critical for slow neutrons.

The result is that, with a thick beryllium reflector, the critical mass of normal plutonium can be reduced to less than 20% of its “bare” critical number. The thickness of the reflector in the Davy Crockett was probably dictated by the limit that is reached when adding more reflector increases the overall mass of the design rather than reducing it.

The variable yield of the W54 looks like a signature of a variable fusion boost, but I’ve seen statements to the effect that D-T fusion doesn’t get going until you reach the 100 ton range, so the W54 may have had multiple fission core compositions. Still, the upper limit of the W54 is within the fusion boosting range, so a design modification could possibly have boosted its potential yield to a full kiloton.

A reasonable question arises, is the implied 2 kg core the minimum amount of plutonium (or U233, which has a bare critical mass of about 16 kg) that can be used to make a nuclear weapon, even one of such a low yield as the W54?

Advanced implosion techniques can produce such high core densities that the critical mass for plutonium can be reduced to as little as 1 kilogram, but the tradeoff is a much more complicated design. Besides, if we’re talking terrorists or a small belligerent state with limited technical resources, we’re much more concerned with basement bomb makers, aren’t we? What’s the least amount of bomb grade stuff necessary to be dangerous?

In one sense, the answer is…none. Nuclear reactors can be made from materials that are not considered bomb grade material. There was a nuclear accident in Japan a few years ago that occurred when workers added water (a moderator) to some highly enriched uranium and accidentally produced a critical excursion. The HEU was only 20% U-235, which is considered far below bomb grade, and there was only 35 kilograms of material involved. Nevertheless, the radiation release killed several workers and put an entire town into panic mode.

Ordinary reactor fuel, on the order of 7% U-235 could also serve as a terror weapon, especially if it were moderated by heavy water, which, unlike light water, does not absorb neutrons very effectively. However, hundreds of kilograms of such fuel would be needed.

Suppose, however, that a hypothetical bad guy had some amount of plutonium, just not enough to build a “conventional” nuclear bomb. How much would he need to cause some havoc?

Based on various published figures, plus some conjectures from reactor design principles, I guesstimate that a “prompt critical” device could be built from as little as 50 grams of plutonium, though you’d also need on the order of several hundred kilograms of natural uranium for a reflector/tamper, and a substantial amount of heavy water. Both of those components, however, are relatively easy to procure, although you might need a cover story to get them (maybe a potter with a hobby of trying to build a cold fusion device). In any event, the tamper/casing of the bomb could be produced from materials that one can obtain within the United States; no smuggling would be required. The explosive yield of such a device could be anywhere from a few pounds of TNT up to something approaching the Davy Crockett. In all cases the local radiation would be lethal to some distance, with significant fission product contamination. A full Davy Crockett yield could almost certainly bring down a building or two; the Oklahoma City bomb was about 2 tons in yield, 10% of the Davy Crockett.

Obtaining plutonium, of course, is a difficult matter, but it’s sobering to realize how much MOX (mixed oxide) fuel is around and about, not to mention the fact that waste nuclear fuel rods become less dangerous with each passing year. We’ve already gone through almost two half lives of the most dangerous intermediate isotopes (cesium and strontium). The rule of thumb is that ten half-lives is sufficient for a radiation source to become safe. That reduces the radiation by a factor of 1000. For intermediate fission products, that is about 300 years; 240 now that we’ve passed the first two half-lives, and the spent fuel is now only ¼ as reactive as it was in 1950.

Some fuel rods have been or will be buried in what is called “geological storage” or, as I like to call them, future plutonium mines.