Friday, November 30, 2007
One of the things about gatherings of all sorts, of course, is that you meet interesting people with interesting stories. One of the folks I shared a panel with (Future Horror, I think it was) is a special effects pyrotechnician. That's part of the deal with Loscon, the connection to the movie biz, especially the technonerdy parts, which I find fascinating because, well, because.
After the panel, he told me a story about going through airport security. The name of this company was on his briefcase, bags, etc., and it included the word "pyrotechnics" and possibly, "explosives." Never mind. He was "randomly selected" for a bag check, and the guy swabbed his briefcase, then fed it into the sniffer. He scratched his head, then took another swab sample and fed it in again. Then he looked at the guy and asked, "What's PETN?"
That would be pentaerythritol tetranitrate, official IUPAC name: 1,3-Dinitrato-2,2-bis (nitratomethyl) propane. It's the principle ingredient in detcord, detonating cord that's used as a superfast fuse for triggering simultaneous explosions.
Okay, so the name "Department of Homeland Security" gives me the Orwellian creeps to start with. I noticed several weeks ago that on the TV show Smallville, they concocted a fictional name for the same organization and called it the "Department of Domestic Security." Smallville is based on Superman, a comic book character. What does it say when a comic book story has a less hokey name than the real thing?
Many people have noted the ongoing dynamic of "terrorism," where real or imagined threats are taken as license not to make policy changes that might actually address security, but rather as excuses to erode legal rights, expand police authority, and generally harass segments of the populace. Part of the wink, wink, nudge, nudge is that the Authoritarian Right assumes that these powers will never be used on them, but rather on other ethnic groups and the Right's political—and social—enemies. They are wrong, of course, but they never figure that part out. There are Russians who still yearn for the good old days of Stalin. For that matter, some still yearn for the Czar.
A recent trilogy of episodes on South Park had the nice conceit of terrorists invading "Imaginationland," literally attacking, not reality, but our imaginations. Last June, after Amy had her toothpaste confiscated by airline security, I realized that the policy of confiscating gels and liquids was to protect us from the terrorists in "Die Hard with a Vengence," i.e., from a type of explosive that does not actually exist, but has appeared in a movie.
Then there is the phenomenon of various pundits just salivating at the prospect of another 9/11 type event, often fantasizing it taking out some "left wing type" who have transgressed, who "don't love America," at least certainly not enough to fantasize about having famous landmarks blown up because they didn't like some election result.
Okay, so none of this is new, and, frankly, there are plenty of people who have been commenting on the politics of it for longer and at greater length than I have, and many of them are better at it. So why am I adding my oar to the water? Because of the other little thing that slips by in this story.
The airport security guard who asks "What is PETN?" is not to blame in this story. He's underpaid and undertrained and he knows full well that his job is basically harassing people, not actually improving their security. Besides, the sheer boredom of swabbing people's shoes and briefcases day after day would turn almost anyone's brain to mush.
But this stuff is supposed to be important, right? Shouldn't they at least try for the appearance of competence? Well, that would violate Conservative Movement Ideology, wouldn't it? I mean, government is supposed to be incompetent.
But wait. These are not government employees. They are employees of companies that have been contracted to provide these services. These companies are supposed to be "more efficient" than government.
Ah, but more efficient at what? Well, the purpose of it all has come to be "provide shareholder value," which is to say, "to make money." And there is some efficiency there, after all. But paying your workers well, training them, well, that just gets in the way of efficiency.
I once saw a documentary on John L. Lewis, who ran the United Mineworkers of America for 40 years. It was mostly coal mining, and coal mining is dirty, dangerous, and brutal. Lewis pushed not only for more money, but also higher safety standards. And he made what amounted to a long term bargain with the coal industry: they would not oppose mechanization if the miners got their fair share of the wealth that derived from enhanced productivity. It made sense; mechanized jobs required higher skills, more experience, and were safer. But there would be fewer of them. So Lewis got more money for fewer workers, undercutting his own political power for the good of those that remained.
The same thing happened with longshoremen when containerization came in. Nowadays, "stevedore" is essentially an archaicism; the men in the longshoremens union run those giant cranes and are paid very well. Ben tells me that Eric Hoffer wrote about the phenomenon in one of his books.
That was the deal as everyone understood it after WWII: rising productivity meant better pay in fewer jobs, but the economy as a whole would create jobs, especially "knowledge based" jobs that required college degrees, etc., so overall wages would increase and productivity would rise. They hadn't coined the phrase "win/win" yet, but there it was.
Somewhere along the line, that pact was broken. Somewhere between 1950 and now, the new business model became that of a South American banana republic: beat down the wages for the masses of workers so that those at the top could skim more cream. This is sometimes called the "Walmart model."
It pains me to think that both the engineering profession and science fiction were enablers to breaking the pact, but there that is as well. Engineers have always been their own worst enemies, partly because we love the work so much, and partly because so many engineers wind up in management. But I do not get the part about slowly undercutting the value of expertise and training. It took me forever to realize that new technologies were being accepted or rejected on the basis of whether or not they allowed the substitution of unskilled labor for skilled labor. And once that process begins, you get more and more highly capable people shoved into lower and lower scale jobs. I've lost count of the number of people I know who have to "dumb down" their resumes to find employment. Then, because the workforce is, in fact, overqualified, really, really, stupid managerial decisions sometimes can be made to work—simply because of the sheer competence of the labor force.
As for science fiction, Analog magazine has been the SF equivalent of Fox News for at least a couple of decades now. When was the last time you read an SF story that portrayed a union or government bureaucrat in a favorable light?
At the top, of course, the push for this new business model is the same as it always was: more booty for those who divvy up the spoils. There has been a huge effort to rationalize the vast sums paid to these folks as "the superstar effect," as if a CEO who gets a $50 million pay packet when his company has lost $2 billion in the quarter is somehow comparable to Barry Bonds. Or some hold that "people skills" have become the most important thing in the economy. Which is true, provided "people skills" is shorthand for "kiss up, kick down," treachery, mendacity, and the ability to pass off criminal behavior as standard business practice.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
As Beauty Does
Turning to short stories, James Killus' "As Beauty Does" is essentially a 1930s story in 90s guise. A mad scientist, er, a physicist, invents a serum, er, builds an accelerator, that can never be duplicated and that is blown up at the end anyway. In this case, the accelerator emits "aestheton" particles that makes ugly things appear beautiful. A seriously ugly female grad student turns the beam on herself. Killus tries for tragicomic commentary on beauty in today's society, but the uneasy mixture never gels.--Steve Carper’s Tangent Reviews
The phonon is a particle used in quantum mechanics to describe the propagation of sound in a crystal matrix. It’s not a “real” particle, in the sense of having an existence independent of the crystal, but it’s real in the sense that it describes a property of the medium and can be analyzed by the same kind of equations that are used on particles having independent existence.
J. B. Rhine’s New Frontiers of the Mind was published in 1937, and it set off a wave of ESP stories in science fiction. The first of Kuttner and Moore’s “Baldy” stories appeared in 1945, for example. Of course, telepathy, clairvoyance, and related subjects had existed in fantastic literature probably as long as fantastic literature has existed, but Rhine put a newly scientific sheen on the subject, regardless of the criticisms that Rhine received from the scientific (and especially the statistical) community.
John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, later renamed as Analog, fell in love with ESP, and renamed it Psi in the mid-fifties, introducing such novelties as the Hieronymous machine, a device that supposedly worked just as well when its innards were replaced by schematics, an entirely believable claim for something that did basically nothing.
By the late fifties, the Psi stories were coming thick and fast, not just in Astounding, but in the other magazines that, pretty much of necessity, found that many submissions were Campbell’s rejects. There were also the “reply stories,” stories that were written as part of the ongoing intellectual dialog in SF. The one that I always think of here is Ted Cogswell’s “Limiting Factor,” which observed that, even if ESP and Psi existed, they would still have biological limitations, whereas machines have no such limits and will therefore always eventually win a competion.
The view that human consciousness is somehow related to basic physics is resilient and perennial, especially among physicists and anyone else who has internalized the modern scientific status hierarchy, which places particle physics at the reductionistic apex. I believe the unconscious syllogism goes:
- Particle physics is the most important knowledge
- My consciousness is the most important phenomenon
- Therefore my consciousness must be a product of particle physics
Some physicists/amateur philosophers use quantum mechanics instead of particle physics, which amounts to the same argument, but does add “mysterious” to “important” in the argument. Besides, particle physics and quantum physics are inextricably linked.
All of which is to say that my story “As Beauty Does” is actually a fifties retro reply story, not a thirties retro story. If consciousness is based on quantum particle physics, then aspects of consciousness, what we perceive as goodness, courage, faith, hope, and, yes, beauty, should have pseudo-particles associated with them, just as the phonon exists in a crystal lattice.
My original version of the story was a downer. After it bounced a couple of times, I remembered that John Campbell always wanted Astounding stories to have solutions. It wasn’t enough to set up the problem, you had to solve it, according to Campbell. So I wrote a version that used a trick (stimulated emission, in fact) to purge poor Marge of her aestheton charge and save the day.
That version bounced a few times also. Then, when I sent it to A. J. Budrys, he sent a response letter suggesting some changes that I realized was actually a request for the original version of the story. I sent it to him and he bought it for Tomorrow SF.
I don’t consider it a “tragicomic commentary on beauty” because I don’t actually find anything funny about it.
My friend and fellow writer Dave Smeds read the original story soon after it was written and found the “beauty vampire” aspect of it sufficiently interesting that he requested my permission to write a fantasy story based on the idea. That became “The Flower that Does Not Wither,” which appeared in Sword and Sorceress IX and got an Honorable Mention in Year's Best Fantasy & Horror,1993. It can be found, for a fee ($0.75), on Fictionwise.
But here at Crazy Jim’s we just give them away.
Because I like you guys so much.
Monday, November 26, 2007
Another Aikido Story
The protagonist was an American, who had gone to Japan to study Aikido at Hombu Dojo, the school established by Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, known as O Sensei, which translates as “Grand Teacher.” Hombu Dojo is the home of the World Aikido Federation, and my membership card informs me that I am the 188,047th member of that organization.
One evening, the student was on the train, returning home, and a man in workman’s clothing entered the car. The workman was obviously drunk, and was elbowing people aside, making insulting remarks, “spoiling for a fight,” as it were. The student thought to himself, “I have been studying Aikido for a long time, but I’ve never had the chance to put it to practical use. Perhaps now is the time.” So he blew the workman a kiss.
This enraged the man, and he began to stalk forward. But an old man on one of the seats called out, “Hey! What have you been drinking?”
The workman was momentarily confused. “Sake!” he said after a moment. “I’ve been drinking sake! I love sake!”
“Ha!” the old man replied. “I knew it! I love sake too!” He patted the seat beside him and said to the workman. “Sit here. Tell me about where you drink. Is the sake cheap and good?”
So the workman sat himself heavily beside the old man and began to talk. Within a few minutes he was in tears, telling the old man about his troubles. He’d lost his job. His woman had left him. He was broke and unsure how he’d pay the month’s rent. And so on.
The student retreated to the next car and got off at his stop, feeling like a fool.
My first Sensei once talked about the movie, The Outlaw Josie Wales, in which there is a scene where Chief Dan George watches an impending gun fight between Wales and some outlaws, where Wales made sure to come at them with the sun behind him, to give himself an edge, the Chief observes. “We always look for the edge,” my Sensei said. “Technique is an edge. Physical conditioning is an edge. Ki is an edge. Knowing what you want is an edge.”
Being able to fight is an edge, but so is being willing to not fight. There are a lot more options when you’re not fixated on the idea of winning the fight, and having options is an edge, too.
Note added 11/29/07: My Sensei informed me that this was a fairly famous story involving Terry Dobson Sensei. In fact, a little tracking finds it here. He tells it better, of course, but I note with some significance that despite having heard the story over 20 years ago, I still remembered the important details.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
I Can't Resist These
Ecstacy: Louise Brooks, set to the band Underworld.
And if you want to know "Why Louise Brooks?" you can read this.
Stories You'll Never Read
Most writers, I think, carry a dream library around with them, of books and stories that they will never get a chance to write, either because they won't have the time, or because the time to write those words has passed, or simply because it would not repay the effort, marketability being a factor in the decision about what to write next.
My own personal dream library is fairly large. I have no idea how it compares to my fellows.
I originally intended for Book of Shadows, my first novel, to be the first book in a trilogy, and, frankly, had I immediately set out to write the next two books, my career as a novelist would probably have been more lucrative. Fantasy trilogies sell better than photochemical smog science fantasy horror novels (i.e. my second novel SunSmoke). In BoS, the first of three magical devices (a magic sword) is destroyed, and it was my intention to take out one of the gizmos with each book. In the second book, whose title would have been Fire and Shadow, the ring would have been lost, when its possessor, well, basically ascends into the sky to become a star. In the third book, Shadows Merge, the protagonist, who by virtue (or vice) of heritage is completely immune to magic, chaperones the last device, a bracelet, to what amounts to a museum of lost artifacts, "never to be seen again," as the old Beyond the Fringe joke goes.
There are also two short stories that go into Fire and Shadow, one written, the other not. Will either ever see the light of day? Maybe. One's already written after all, and putting things up on the Web is cheap.
I also had a sequel in mind for SunSmoke: MoonMist, in which a magic spell descends upon Southern California, turning everyone into stereotypes. You may now make the usual joke: "Who would notice?" Well, among others, the protagonists of SunSmoke.
Paramount is never going to buy my Star Trek Novel, plotted as a lark one day in early 1980, and I've already mentioned what happened to my attempt to create a YA series for the Carmen Sandiego franchise. I'd be plenty happy to pitch my two Buffy the Vampire Slayer book ideas, but I think that pipeline is pretty well stuffed.
I'd have to seriously rewrite the first 20,000 words of Separation Techniques, as the terrorism and nuclear proliferation landscape has changed mightily since the mid-1990s, when I did the first part of it. At this distance, I suspect that I bogged down on it when it came time to kill one of the female characters, and I just didn't want to do it. Ben Sano tells me that I may be too kind to my characters, and he may be right. It's a little odd though; God doesn't seem to have any problem killing women in real life, so why am I bothered by doing it in fiction? Yet I am, and there it is.
I may someday get around to writing The Cuckoo, and/or The Zzyzyx, but until I do, they're also in The Taj Mahal Bookstore, which is what we members of the Albany State Science Fiction Fan Federation called the commercial version of Dream's Library, back in the early 1970s. In fact, I once write a story called, "The Taj Mahal Bookstore," which was not very good (another big reason why some stories never see the public eye), but did have one really good idea in it. The book that the protagonist finds is Huey, Dewey, and Louie's Junior Woodchuck Manual, from Uncle Scrooge comics. I later completely rewrote the idea, sans JWM, for a story called "Plot Device," that should appear sometime in the future, not sayin' where, I'm just sayin'.
Then there are the collaborations that did not pan out, "Lizard Run" and "Nightlife, With Gods," being the memorable ones. That's the biz, sweetheart. You'll read those sometime after the second issue of D'Arc Tangent goes on sale.
The stories I wrote when I was young are, almost without exception, godawful. I don't even remember the title of the one about the telepath sent to verify that the wolves on some planet are actually intelligent. Gah. I no longer have the original of the one that won the short story contest when I was 15, but even its later rewritten incarnations are slight to the point of blowing away in a stiff breeze. And I hope to god I never run across the novel I started in my teens, trying to emulate Harold Robbins. I honestly cannot begin to imagine what I was thinking.
There are a couple of stories I began in homage to Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, a Hogben story entitled "The Doosey," and a reworking of some of the ideas in "The Children's Hour" entitled "Shard of Darkness." I am the dark lord of retro SF.
Then, of course, we have the titles without much story to back them, my favorite being "Chimera Obscura." One is allowed to observe that I expend perhaps too much cleverness on titles.
Will I ever finish "Maxmillian on the Moon?" Who can say? It's about half done, but it's turned into a novella, and that's a bitch to sell. "Just Another Granny Death?" That may depend substantially on the fate of Dark Underbelly.
Like I say, I think a lot of writers carry around a Dream Library inside their heads. The universe of dreams seems larger than the one our senses clutch, but I can't say if this is good or bad.
Monday, November 19, 2007
A Brief Anecdote Featuring Robert Sheckley
Euphoria leads to chatting and speculation, and at one point I mentioned to Sheckley my notion of “simulated intelligence.” The idea there is that while actual intelligent machines seem to be damn difficult to make, it appears that it’s pretty easy to fool people into thinking that something is intelligent when it actually isn’t. For the record, I was thinking of the early computer program Eliza, which didn’t exactly pass the Turing test, but did have some fraction of the people who dealt with it think it to be a person.
At the dark heart of all the is the notion first that people are easily fooled, and second that we all have spent a certain amount of time pretending to be smarter than we really are.
By way of explanation, I suggested that you might have several robots, a cooking robot, a nanny robot, and a medic robot, each with a simulated intelligence for its assigned task. But having the wrong one “clean and dress” a wound, or “clean and dress” the baby, might lead to some unfortunate results.
Sheckley told me, “That’s a pretty good start, but to make that a classic Sheckley story, you’d need to have at least such three situations, each building on the previous one, but more extreme, then you’d need the final twist that reversed everything that the reader had been expecting.
And I thought, “Crap! He’s got me dead to rights.” Much later, I realized that I’d also been pretending to be smarter than I really was, and Sheckley had, ever so politely, brought that to my attention.
Still, the simulated intelligence idea has some merit. Besides, I’ve just had a parallel universes idea that might have the right stuff, even down to the reverse twist at the end. The real question though, is would anyone buy a new Sheckley story, now that Bob himself is gone?
Sunday, November 18, 2007
My Herb Caen Story
So we bailed, or rather, we drove back to San Francisco. I didn’t want to go all the way back to Berkeley for reasons that I do not care to divulge at this time. However, a hint may be found on the Congress of Wonders second album Sophomoric, in the routine Opheelthis Unchained.
We parked out past Van Ness, because anything closer to downtown was ridiculous. It wasn’t that long a walk to the Civic Center, however, so we lay on the lawn across from the CC and watched the secretaries having lunch, while the last of the morning low clouds burned off overhead. Then we caught a cable car and headed downtown. Thirty years ago, cable cars were actually a cheap (like 50 cents, if I remember correctly), practical means of transportation rather than a theme park ride for tourists. We visited the Krell Empire (the Hyatt Regency), took another cable car ride to Ghirardelli Square, then got into a matinee of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” partly because Murray had been in a college production. We both agreed that Jim Nagy had made a better McMurphy than the guy playing it in SF, but the rest of the SF cast was better. It wasn’t really a fair comparison of McMurphy’s, because Nagy had been typecast for life, even to the final point of dying young from too much speed in all of its forms.
After the play, we ambled over to City Lights Bookstore and had dinner at the Cherry Blossom Restaurant, my favorite Vietnamese place. By then it was dark, and time to head for home.
The cable car going out seemed to take forever to come. After too long a wait, a big limousine pulled up and its occupant called out to the five or six of us waiting there, “Any of you folks need a lift?” We all looked at each other and then all piled into the back of the limo.
The guy in the back was garrulous, chatting up everybody, asked them where they were from, etc. etc. Murray and I were the last out of the limo, since we’d parked out past the end of the cable car line. As the limo drove off, Murray said to me, “Well, that was strange.”
“You have no idea,” I told him. “That was Joe Alioto. He’s the Mayor of San Francisco.”
Winterland was on our way back. The Jefferson Starship was playing that night. We didn’t go in, but as we were passing by, Marty Balin was singing “Caroline.” As the saying goes, it doesn’t get any better than a day like that.
Note: Herb Caen was a San Francisco columnist who often wrote “Only in San Francisco” stories. He died in 1997.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Q. Why does wet sand look darker than dry sand?
A. Reflects less light."
---Answer Dept., THE GRAB BAG, San Francisco Chronicle, April 26, 1992.
And aren't we glad that that's been explained?
The word "albedo" refers to the amount of light that a surface reflects. When it reflects different colors by differing amounts, we get various colors.
Fresh snow has an albedo of about 0.7, indicating that it reflects about 70% of the light it receives. Carbon black reflects only about 3% light, and that is close to a lower limit for flat surfaces. Special "black body" measurements are made by looking at the opening of dark cavities, like the mouth of a cave is darker than any surface.
Of the planets, Venus is the clear winner in the albedo sweepstakes, with a 76% reflectivity. Despite what it might seem on a night with a full moon, Luna is quite dark, with an average albedo of only 0.07, close to that of Mercury, which is easily the darkest planet. There are a number of objects even darker still, mostly carbonaceous chondrite asteroids, or planetary moons which may be captured asteroids, like Phobos and Deimos, the moons of Mars. It's not easy to measure the reflectivity of very dark objects, but the carbonaceous bodies have albedos as low as 0.04.
ALBEDO OF VARIOUS BODIES
- MERCURY: 0.06
- VENUS: 0.76
- EARTH: 0.29
- LUNA: 0.07
- MARS: 0.16
- PHOBOS: 0.05
- DEIMOS: 0.05
- ASTEROIDS: (0.04-0.5)
- JUPITER: 0.34
- IO: 0.6
- EUROPA: 0.65
- GANYMEDE: 0.45
- CALLISTO: 0.18
- SATURN: 0.33
- MIMAS : 0.7
- ENCLADUS: >1
- TETHYS: 0.8
- DIONE: 0.5
- RHEA: 0.6
- TITAN: 0.2
- IAPETUS (leading side): 0.05
- (trailing side): 0.5
- URANUS: 0.34-0.5
- MIRANDA: 0.34
- ARIEL: 0.4
- UMBRIEL: 0.19
- TITANIA: 0.28
- OBERON: 0.24
- NEPTUNE: 0.34-0.5
- TRITON: 0.7-0.9
- PLUTO/CHARON: 0.5
Although the 0.76 albedo of Venus is very bright, it's still not the most reflective body in the solar system. That honor belongs to Enceladus, the second large moon of Saturn, which has an "visible geometric albedo of greater than 1 (some observations make it as high as 1.4).
Like another moon of Saturn, Mimas, Enceladus is mostly water, with perhaps as much as 40 percent of the mass being silicate, including a small rocky core. The interior temperature is quite warm for an icy moon, perhaps due to tidal forcing from Dione, which is much denser, and has a resonant orbital period twice that of Enceladus.
It's pretty obvious that the high albedo of Enceladus is due to anisotropic backscattering, light being reflected back towards it origin preferentially. Since the light comes from the Sun, and since, from Enceladus' point of view, the Earth is always near the Sun, the Earth always gets more light reflected from Enceladus. Even so, the ice on Enceladus' surface must be very clean, although there have been some suggestions (based on spectroscopy) that there is some ammonia mixed in with it. But there is active vulcanism seen on Enceladus, which suggests that the surface is undergoing constant refreshing.
The surface of Enceladus shows evidence of an active geological history. There are six types of terrain ranging from heavily cratered plains to craterless grooved terrain that is similar to the sulci of Ganymede. The sulci terrain features are on the trailing hemisphere of Enceladus, leading to the suggestion that they have been protected from bombardment by the bulk of the moon as it encountered debris in its synchronous orbit.
Saturn's E ring shows a brightness peak along the orbit of Enceladus, and may consist mainly of ice crystals which would escape from the weak gravity of Enceladus when meteors impact the surface or when some other factor causes water to outgas from the interior. If this is true, then the E ring is similar in origin to the "plasma torus" of Io, another moon that is warmed by tidal forcing.
Enceladus is the second classical moon of Saturn, named by Sir John Hershel after a giant in Greek mythology who figured in a revolt against the gods. Son of Tartarus and Gaea, Enceladus had a hundred arms and was so strong that Athene was forced to bury him beneath Mt. Aetna, and his occasional movements were held to be the source of the volcanic earth tremors that move Sicily. The surface features of Enceladus are by convention named after characters in Sir Richard Burton's "The Thousand Nights and a Night."
Friday, November 16, 2007
Me and Carmen Sandiego
The next Carmen Sandiego project was to be "Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego?" So the project manager had the idea of getting an SF writer to write material for the game.
If you've never played any of the Carmen Sandiego games, the basic gimmick is similar to the old text-based D&D style games. Carmen Sandiego is the ringleader of a criminal gang and the gang has stolen something valuable and rare. At any given point, the player is given a "clue," possibly information from an informant, possibly an artifact, something. They then deduce the next destination for the Carmen Sandiego crime gang, go there and get the next clue. Eventually the player recovers the stolen item, but, of course, Carmen Sandiego herself is never caught.
The Carmen Sandiego style for the "clues" was distinctive, based on puns and other word play. Those writers who wanted to apply for the job of writing for the game were told to submit some samples. My research consulting business at that time was pretty part-time, so I contacted the Broderbund manager and sent in some samples.
I also had a leg up in that Broderbund was just across SF Bay from where I lived, so I could actually go and interview in person. I also had a reasonably good idea of what the tech contract going rate was in the Bay Area, so I knew what sort of money to ask for.
Anyway, long story short, I got the gig. Then the mutations began.
First, the original project manager left to go to Lucasfilm's game division, so I switched contacts before I'd even begun work. That was fine, and par for the course, actually. Then there was the thing about the "on-line database."
See, most of the Carmen Sandiego games come with a reference work, a book of some sort, like a World Almanac, or a history reference. "Where in Space…" had a small little pocket astronomy book, but it was really cheap and there wasn't that much to it. So they asked if I would be willing to write a sort of an "overview of the Solar System" database that could be included in the game (the game was confined to the solar system, for which, thank god, because all of space would have been just too overwhelming). Sure, I said. Heck, these guys were paying by the hour, after all.
So one writing project turned into two, and it was a research project besides. I got to go down to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, to every used bookstore in a town filled with used bookstores, and buy up every popular text on the solar system that had been written in the last 20 years or so. Actually, I didn't limit myself to popular texts. I'm a nurd; who knows what sort of cool thing I might find in Annals of the IQSY 5 Solar-Terrestrial Physics?
Meanwhile, I was writing clues. I'd been told at the start that there would be two or three writers working on the project, but sometime around the middle of it, I was told that I was the only one left.
Well, hi ho, just crank out the clues, of varying difficulty levels, and try to keep it clever. The one that the new manager, Dave, loved, was this one:
>He told me to say, "Did you pet her," five times really fast and I'd figure it out.
Difficulty level of only 1, but good for a chuckle.
As nearly as I can reconstruct from the dates on my files, the gig lasted for about 6-8 months, and it was nearly full-time pay for part-time work, almost all of which I did from home. I got to research the geography of the solar system, learned many of the named features of most of the satellites in the outer solar system by heart, and accumulated a substantial library of source material for anything I might be curious about. It should probably be noted that most of this material is now on-line, one way or another, including some information that we either had a devil of a time locating. What is Skynd Crater named after, eh? Yeah, yeah, you bastards, you've got Google to help you. All we had was the head librarian at JPL.
So it was informative, and it was also fun. Plus, the money from that gig, which would not have come my way without my SFWA membership, remember, probably outweighs all the other money I've made writing SF. And remember, I wasn't being paid huge sums by Broderbund. It's just that writing fiction pays suck all, unless you hit a jackpot, which I have not. Still and all, both the fiction writing and the Carmen Sandiego gig have added well into 5 figures to my income over the years, but together they don't crack 6 figures, unless you assume that I put all my writing income into the stock market, beginning back in 1983 (which may not be that wrong an assumption, come to think of it).
But "Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego?" was not a jackpot, either for me or for Broderbund. Dave, the project manager left Broderbund shortly thereafter, and I was not able to continue the association, partly because the company hit some hard times and wound up being acquired by The Learning Company. And "Space" did not sell that well, as I told Dave was likely at one point or another.
You see, the other Carmen Sandiego games are aimed at kids who are in elementary school, children aged 6-12, I think, is the target audience. But the "Space" game had pretty strong science fiction elements to it, and that's a YA market, which is more like 13-18. It was not a bad idea to try to expand the age reach of the franchise, but I foresaw it as being a hard row. A 14 year old is trying to cease "being a kid," and playing a game that has "grade school" associations isn't going to help in that quest.
I thought that there was the possibility for some SF YA book tie-ins, and that those could help expand the market, and, incidentally, make some more money for me. There I ran into a brick wall. Broderbund had signed an exclusive deal with a publisher for tie-in books, which was fine. What wasn't fine was that it was impossible to contact the editor in charge of that putative line of books. I spoke with her exactly once, after weeks of trying to call her. It turned out that she'd answered the phone by accident. There had been so many cutbacks in the editorial staff and she was so overloaded that she'd taken to filtered all calls through voicemail and she only answered the ones that represented some crisis or another. Since adding another line of books to the deal was never going to be "a crisis," I was SOOL.
If you want to do TV and movies, move to LA. The San Francisco Bay Area is good for working in computer/video games. For book publishing, live near New York.
I could never figure out how to be in three places at once.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
More Wayback Machine
Henry and I were staying with Douglas in Berkeley, looking for jobs and sleeping on the floor. I'd had a part-time job in the fall of '74 writing practice test questions for a small firm offering a course in passing the FCC 1st Class Radiotelephone License exam, but in January of '75 I signed onto the quality assurance group at the Nuclear Submarine Fueling Station at Mare Island Shipyards in Vallejo. I wasn't fond of the job; it was winter and I had to be there before dawn. I'm not a morning person.
One evening, after I got back from work, Henry came in and dropped a 3 x 5 index card in my lap. "I talked to these guys on the phone," he told me. "It's not a good fit for me, but it looks like it would be right up your alley."
See, when I say "literally dropped into my lap," I mean literally.
SAI had begun its life as a consulting firm for telecommunication policy, primarily for the Office of Telecommunication Policy (which no longer exists, so enough of this "government bureaus never die" crap). Later, some disgruntled folks from Shell Oil, along with some Caltech brainpower, signed on to bid on a "seed money" contract to the USEPA, to develop a simulation model for urban smog, to ultimately be used in devising State Implementation Plans (SIPs) for urban smog abatement. There were three such contracts originally; it was essentially a competition, with the best initial design getting a much larger follow-on project to continue model development.
Okay, quick nurd stuff. There are two ways of modeling fluid mechanics, Lagrangian and Eulerian, named after 18th Century mathematicians. Eulerian modeling is probably the easiest to describe and understand: just divide the volume holding the fluid into a lot of small, connected boxes, and calculated the flows among the boxes. For incompressible fluids (and on the urban scale, air can be considered incompressible, though you sometimes have to make adjustments for altitude), you can take advantage of those nice conservation of mass laws.
In Lagrangian mechanics, you select a bit of the fluid and you follow it around, like watching snowflakes in the wind. Over time, you can follow the trajectory of an individual snowflake and that tells you how the wind got from point A to point B. Lagrangian models are sometimes called trajectory models, for the obvious reason.
Two of the three companies developing smog models chose the Lagrangian approach, creating what are called "trajectory models," because you are following the trajectory of an air parcel over land. Such models are much computationally cheaper than Eulerian models (often called "grid models"), and are also cheaper to develop. You don't need to worry about the fluid flow equations, for one thing. The trajectory can simply follow the estimates of wind speed and direction, getting those estimates from the nearest wind stations. So if you wanted to model the observed ozone peak at an individual monitoring station, you just "back calculated" the air parcel trajectory to some starting point, like sunrise, then ran it over the emissions field and calculated how the chemistry behaved, until it ran into the monitoring station.
Computer time was expensive in 1975. A trajectory model might have 3-5 stacked boxes in the air parcel, and you might have to run the thing 10-12 times to get a full prediction at a single monitoring station. But a grid model would typically have at least 25 cells in both horizontal directions, plus the same number of stacked boxes that a trajectory model would have. You can run a lot of trajectory simulations when the difference in computing cost per simulation is almost 3 orders of magnitude. There were some concerns as to whether or not a grid model could be made to work at all.
SAI, however, did manage to produce a photochemical grid model, in some measure thanks to the CDC 7600 and a lot of prior academic research on computing fluid flow etc. So SAI won the follow-on contract, and hired several new people. I was one of them. My job? To develop a trajectory model.
Okay, yeah, that's a bit funny. They won because they'd developed a grid model and one of the first things they did was develop a trajectory model. But it did make sense. As I say, trajectory models are much cheaper to run. They are also easier to diagnose and debug, because they are simpler. And there were a lot of bells and whistles that were slated for inclusion in the final product, things like surface deposition (assessing how rapidly smog ozone is destroyed by ground surfaces), changes in light through the air column (smog is hazy and haze redistributes light), microscale effects (does chemistry that takes place at small scales have a big impact on a 5 mile x 5 mile grid?), and so forth. There was also an ongoing development contract to research smog chemistry, so it was useful to have a cheap version of what would go into the grid model, in order to test that against other, more sophisticated chemical kinetics solvers.
So, after the usual water-up-your-nose that occur when you jump feet first into a new pool, I got the trajectory model running. I also got to know the new guy running the atmospheric chemistry show, Gary Whitten (the previous guy left for a lucrative career at Chevron), and learned how Whitten's new ideas about smog chemistry worked. This was called the "Carbon Bond Mechanism" (which gets about 350 hits on Google scholar). I learned it from the guts out, as I had to hard code every single reaction into the chemistry solver shared by the trajectory and grid models.
During the next couple of years, I also worked out the method for estimating pollutant depositions on surfaces, got estimates for how the photolysis of nitrogen dioxide and other important species varied with solar zenith angle, and provided a quick and dirty (so to speak) method for calculating aerosol haze formation in smog, along with how the haze affected the photolysis of the important chemical species. I revised the emissions inventories that we had, because those came in the form of simply "reactive hydrocarbon" (RHC) or "non-methane hydrocarbon" (NMHC), and we needed the hydrocarbons split into different reactive species.
I also coded a new vertical dispersion algorithm into the model. I had no input into this particular piece of work; the guy in charge of it tended to treat anyone else, as one of the programmers put it, "as just another pair of hands." I'm pretty sure he actually got it wrong, because his implementation used calculations at a point for diffusivity, but the algorithm he was using varied considerably over the bottom grid cell. Diffusivity is rather like conductivity; you can't use averages for conductivity and get meaningful results. You have to use its inverse: resistance. It's also called resistance in diffusion calculations as well, and getting that right was critical for the surface deposition calculations.
Later, I worked out some new methods for calculating wind fields that reduced some modeling artifacts caused by a spurious convergence that is created when winds turn. I think I had a handle on how to do really right when everyone switched over to what are called "prognostic models" for winds (basically using a full fluid flow model for your wind field), so I never got to see that idea in action.
And if all this sounds very productive, realize that I haven't even mentioned the work that I was doing with Whitten on the basic photochemistry of aromatic hydrocarbons, isoprene and other biogenics, and peroxyacetyl nitrate (PAN).
So there I was, fresh out of school with a newly minted Master's Degree, which meant that I was cheaper than any PhD. And within a short period of time I was doing major development and scientific work that is being cited to this day. Within a year of my hiring I was technical lead on the Denver modeling project that was the first application of the new, realistic chemistry that Whitten had developed. I did literature reviews on atmospheric sources of nitrogen oxides, including a pretty comprehensive review of nitrogen oxide production from internal combustion engines. At one point one of the senior scientists said that I was "essential" to any urban airshed modeling project that SAI wanted to undertake.
I was also, apparently, so fundamentally obnoxious that years later, Whitten told me that at a management meeting in late 1975, he was the only manager who was willing to supervise me. He followed that with, "I never saw what was so hard about it. A project would come up. I'd talk to you about it for a bit. You'd usually be pretty negative and pessimistic at first, then something would catch your interest. Then all I had to do was wait for you to come back and report on what you'd done, which you'd do every couple of days."
I'm reasonably sure I'm more easygoing and likeable these days. But that's still pretty much the way to manage me. Some managers are fine with it. Others, it drives up the wall. Sorry.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Monday, November 12, 2007
One uncharitable, and I assume probably incorrect view, would be that Helix gets a lot of good stories about the same subject, or pushing the same point of view. Certainly we readers were spared a number of video-games-are-real stories over the years, by editors who could see a cliche coming. Doubtless there are other themes that were old before they ever left their infancy.
But there are broader, more general themes in SF, that get new flesh, new paint, new liposuction and presto, another story that looks new, hell, it may even be new, but the shock and awe dissipates long before one gets to its core. That's part of the "genre" business, of course, and probably not even a sin, much less a tragic flaw. Nevertheless, it offers a handle for real criticism as opposed to mere review.
So there's this thing, just a little hiccup, really, or an itch that one cannot localize. Try to scratch it, and I find myself wondering about the life and times and such. Once having made a tentative identification, I need to maybe check some earlier Helix stories to see how many of them also carry the virus, one that looks to be a purer strain in Helix #6.
First, though, let's put a label on it and thereby change its nature, because naming does that. I'll try to keep it broad, so there's plenty of room for argument. Then too, there's the joking callback to The Graduate:
The stories in Helix #6 are playing games with plasticity, of body especially, of society somewhat, of mind, well, there's the rub.
I hope none of these are spoilers, and I always recommend people read a story before reading my comment on it (and really, what are the relative number of readers, anyway, between me-by-my-lonesome and Helix?).
- "The Button Bin," by Mike Allen: Putting on a monster like a suit of clothes.
- "The Makeover Men" by Jayme Lynn Blaschke: Genetic therapy as the equivalent of cosmetic surgery.
- "The Mechanical Mechanic, His Apprentice, and the Judge" by Sarah K. Castle:War veteran with numerous prosthetics.
- "Kill Me," by Vylar Kaftan: Mutilation, death and resurrection via implantedcybernetic storage device.
- "The Golden Whip" by Jay Lake: Technobureaucratic apotheosis via nanotech implants.
- "The Snake's Wife" by Ann Leckle: Primitive sex change surgery.
- "The Last Stand of the Elephant Man" by Jennifer Pelland: Futuristic resurrection and soul swapping in a jaded society.
In contrast to the fairly extreme changes of physical appearance and life circumstances that appear in these stories, the people themselves, their characters, their personalities, those change little, and what change does occur, it is well within the ordinary limits of human beings.
Now granted, this last part is a feature, not a bug. Audiences are not going to tune into characters that are something other than human. In fact, as I think I�ve noted before, modern audiences will seldom connect to characters of other than modern sensibility, so that writing about a real historical character always has the tug-of-war between being faithful to the real historical personage and not losing the audience.
That segues to the biggest problem with "The Last Stand of the Elephant Man," an account of Joseph Merrick's awakening in a future where his soul (we'll call it that) has been placed in an undeformed body, while his body is inhabited by a futuristic thrill/fame seeker. Whatever the merits of the story as a commentary on the decadence of a celebrity worshiping society (who, us?), having Merrick as the point-of-view character, and worse, being authorially privy to his thoughts, kept dropping me out of the narrative. The story makes much of how people's knowledge of Merrick comes primarily from the motion picture (if the theatrical production was mentioned I missed it), but does not really supply us with much to fill in the blanks, other than possibly some Victorian prudery, and some intellect.
Both "The Button Bin" and "Kill Me" are psycho-sexual creepshows, and stand or fall on the creepiness factor, which is pretty high, so good on them. There is a little bit of the "oh, not that again," in character's revelation in "The Button Bin," but that's probably just me. On the plus side, the words-in-a-row writing is good.
"The Makeover Men" manages to turn an end-of-the-world scenario into a tale of dueling narcissists, with the future of the world going to Quagmire from Family Guy, more or less. Then the post-theocratic tale "The Mechanical Mechanic, His Apprentice, and the Judge," barely manages to hit the broad side of a barn in warning us about religious authoritarianism and patriotic hypocrisy. Still, the barn does have a broad side, so de gustibus.
I think "The Golden Whip" is the shortest and most economical of the stories here. It mines the cyberpunk style and world-view, and, assuming I interpreted it correctly (always a risk with writing that slings stream-of-consciousness plus the occasional verb-less sentence), it's a reminder of how easy it is for elephants to trample mice, or, for that matter, mice to trample mice, given the nature of giant organizations and slick technology.
"The Snake's Wife" could probably have been written any time in the last hundred years (maybe more), and I mean that in a good way. That is one of the advantages of classic land-far-away fantasy: it has no real sell-by date. It's also nice to see that the "prophecy is literally true but watch out for the loopholes" thing can apply to the gods who make the prophecies come true as well. The tale might have benefited from a little more cutting (no pun intended) and names that were easier to keep track of, but those are some more things whose effectiveness has varied within the past century, not to mention from reader to reader. The story gives the impression of being a part of a larger work, which I hope is not the case, because I like the feel of things whose edges lead into the mist.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
The Sweet Science
In response, many saloons purchased the buildings in which they resided (or a near neighbor building), called themselves “hotels,” and rented out the rooms by the hour to the sort of patrons that rented rooms by the hour, i.e. prostitutes. This was a classic loophole, producing classic unintended consequences.
Contemporaneous to the “Raines Hotels” was another loophole, this one in Federal and State Laws governing boxing, or prizefighting. Here, pugilistic competitions were allowed, provided they were as a “scientific demonstration.” Although the phrase “Sweet Science” first entered the language in 1824, in Pierce Egan’s Boxania, in which he used the phrase “the sweet science of bruising,” I have long suspected that the boxing loophole did more for the phrase than anything else.
Boxing is a very artificial fighting style, in that grappling techniques such as used in wrestling (or Aikido) are expressly forbidden. Of course, by “forbidden,” I mean, “used in a tactical way.” Hugging your opponent in a boxing match is a way to disrupt the current activity and obtain the intercession of the referee. This technique was the key to Buster Douglas’ defeat of Mike Tyson in the match that lost Tyson his title.
Tyson was from the “street thug” school of fisticuffs, no surprise there, since he had been a street thug. There was a time, briefly in his early career, when it appeared that he might have it in him to also become a technical boxer. The Tyson-Spinks fight was the culmination of that, a fight that has become legendary as over-hyped, since Tyson dropped Spinks in a minute and a half.
It was an interesting minute and a half, however. Tyson is usually seen as simply a bruiser, and there was some of that in it, of course. But his approaches to Spinks were technically brilliant; Spinks threw punches that Tyson slipped, but he also used the rotation of slipping the punch to cock his entire body for the follow-up. The effect was devastating. Spinks tried to block the return punches, but they had the entire force of Tyson’s body behind them. Blocking was useless against such power. A faster boxer than Spinks might have been able to dodge the blows, but it’s awfully hard to make a strike and then dodge when the return comes back at you so fast.
The young Ali could have done it, however. Ali was so fast that he got away with things that would have been suicide for most boxers. During the first Liston fight, Ali (then Cassius Clay) regularly evaded Liston’s punches by going straight back, something that should and would have been a straight trip to the canvas for anyone but Ali. The result was that Liston was punching air, and destroyed his shoulder over the course of a few rounds.
Tyson, except for a few brief glimpses of something greater, is of the Liston school of boxing, a street fighter tuned up and tamped down for the boxing ring. After the Spinks fight, Tyson’s father-surrogate trainer died, Tyson married and divorced Robin Givens, ran his car into a tree, and was then jailed for rape. Somewhere in there any hope of becoming something more than he was, died.
I think that the three most interesting boxers of the 20th century (certainly in the heavyweight division) are Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali, though opinions differ.
I don’t think there is any way to rank the three of them; their times were so different not even theoretical matchups make any sense. The first two ended their lives in poor circumstances, victims of both a sport and a society that feeds on celebrities then discards them when fashion shifts and age dulls their luster.
Ali still remains something of a creature apart. The connection that the boxing glove allows between physical force and the human brain works both ways, and neural damage is the frequent, perhaps even inevitable result. In Ali’s case, pseudo-Parkinson’s has frozen his face, but its very immobility now resembles the mask of a Mayan god, and only the eyes convey the powerful and generous humanity that still resides within.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
How Business Works: #236 in the Series
One interesting thing about this particular simulation was that it did not involve Los Angeles. It just so happened that a project involving Denver had coincided with several model upgrades, including the new chemistry, so Denver got the goodies before LA did.
The project team consisted of a goodly fraction of the employees of the (rather small) research consulting firm that had originally won the main EPA follow-on work for developing a photochemical grid model: Systems Applications Inc., not to be confused with Science Applications Inc., or several other firms that went by the initials SAI. Systems Applications no longer exists as such, having been part of the merger and acquisitions whirligig in the 1980s, followed by a breakaway group going to start up a unit of Environ, though not many of those at SAI in 1976 are with either the ghost of SAI or Environ now. That's the biz, you know?
Anyway, part of the SAI business model was to do these government research and consulting gigs, which did not have much profit margin, followed by environmental impact work for other groups, usually corporate, which did have decent profit margins—sometimes. And thereby hangs this tale.
After the work for the Denver Regional Council of Governments (pronounced "Dr. Cog"), we got a request for an impact statement for a facility that had a natural gas turbine power source. Natural gas burns without much in the way of hydrocarbon emission, but the combustion temperature creates some nitrogen oxides, NOx in the lingo, and we were charged with determining the air quality impact. The thing only emitted a few kilograms of NOx per day or thereabouts, barely enough to register on the meter, as it were, but part of the song and dance of environmental impact statements is to do your "due diligence" and if you can get the cutting edge of science on your side, well, good on you and here's your permit.
I'd been the primary modeler on the DRCOG project, for a lot of reasons that I'll describe some other time, and there was a computer programmer/operator who worked with me, and a project manager above me. This was back in the days of punch cards and CDC 7600s, and pardon while I get all misty eyed, okay, that was plenty, because, really, feeding cards into card readers to run programs sucks.
I asked the programmer how much time he expected the job to take. The only thing that needed be done was to add one single point source to the point source input deck, then a bit of analysis, AKA subtracting several numbers from each other and maybe drawing a picture or two. He estimated the time at something like three days, but said, "Call it a week."
I knew how much a week costed out at, so I got the dollar figure, then doubled it, and reported that as my estimated cost of the project to the Denver Project lead. He doubled my estimate and gave it to the Comptroller.
The Comptroller doubled that number and gave it to the company President, who then doubled it and made that offer to the company that wanted to hire us. They signed without blinking.
Okay, so that's between 16 and 32 times what the programmer had expected the thing to cost, a nice profit margin, and good work if you can get it.
Then the programmer added the emissions to the program, ran it, and compared it to the original "base case" or "validation" simulation. They were the same.
Okay, really small emissions source. It's not surprising that the effect was minor, miniscule even. But he expected something. I think he was looking at like five or six digit accuracy in the printouts. There should have been some differences in the numerical noise at least. So he multiplied the source strength by ten, then by a hundred.
Still no difference.
Well, a programmer knows a bug when it bites him on the ass. He went into the code and found an array size limit that basically meant that any point source greater than #20 didn't get into the simulation. The impact source we were looking for had been added to the end of the list, so it didn't show up.
The Denver region at that time had one major power plant that was responsible for something like 30%-40% of all the nitrogen oxides emitted into the Denver airshed. And, wouldn't you know it, that power plant was like, #45 on the list, or whatever. Higher than #20, that's for sure.
So now we had to go back and redo our base case. We also had to redo every single simulation in our original study, and rewrite every report, and all the papers that were in progress, and notify the nice folks at DRCOG, who, it should be noted, had already paid us for all of the above when we did the original study, so they weren't about to pay us to do it again. We were lucky in one way: large, elevated point sources (like power plants) don't have nearly the impact of ground-based sources like automobiles, so the omission hadn't had that much effect on our original simulations, at least not near the air quality monitoring stations that we'd used to test the veracity of the model. There were some differences, of course, and tables changed, future impact projections were modified, etc. etc. Oh, and we got to use the original base case as a "what if" scenario, as in "What if Denver's largest point source of NOx emissions were switched off?"
Fortunately, we had some money to do all these things with: the environmental impact contract. I was told that we did actually wind up making a profit on it. I think it was in the low triple digits.
Friday, November 9, 2007
Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier was born in 1743 to Jean-Antoine Lavoisier, a prominent lawyer, and Emilie Punctis, who belonged to a rich and influential family, and who died when Antoine-Laurent was five years old. He was basically raised by his maiden aunt Mlle Constance Punctis, who arranged for his education at the College Mazarin, which was noted for its faculty of science.
Although young Antoine completed a law degree in accordance with family wishes, his true calling was in science. On the basis of his early scientific work, primarily in geology, he was elected at the age of 25—to the Academy of Sciences, France’s most elite scientific society.
In the same year as his election to the Academy, in order to finance his scientific research, he bought into the Ferme Générale, the private corporation that collected taxes for the Crown on a for profit (as you can see, “privatization” is hardly a new idea). A few years later he married the daughter of another “tax farmer.” Her name was Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, and she was not quite 14 at the time. Madame Lavoisier learned English, in order to translate the work of British chemists like Joseph Priestley and Henry Cavendish for her husband. She also studied art and engraving and illustrated Lavoisier’s scientific experiments.
Lavoisier has been called the “father of modern chemistry” for good reason. He established the principle of conservation of mass in chemistry and physics, and performed a series of experiments which, combined with the work of Priestly and Cavendish, overthrew the theory of phlogiston as an explanation of combustion, and thereafter the swept away the classical theory of the elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Lavoisier’s replacement table of the elements ran to some 33 “irreducible substances” most of which were what we today recognize as elements, such as mercury, sulfur, and oxygen, which he renamed from “dephlogistonized air.” He also performed such flashy experiments as demonstrating that diamond is made from carbon by burning one in an atmosphere of pure oxygen.
During the Reign of Terror in 1794, Antoine Lavoisier was arrested, along with 27 others, by the French Revolutionary Tribune for abusing the office of Ferme Générale by adulterating tobacco with water. They were guillotined the same day. When asked for his defense, Lavoisier is famously said to have remarked, “I am a scientist,” to which the tribunal replied, “The Revolution has no need of scientists.” Then “snick” went the head of Lavoisier. That’s the famous part of the story, anyway, usually given as a cautionary tale about the anti-science nature of revolutions.
Popular accounts often omit the predatory nature of the Ferme Générale, which was, after all, basically a protection racket, there being no limit to the taxes collected except what the tax collectors could gouge from the populace. The Crown got its share, but everything above that was pure profit, and the agency was very profitable, profitable enough to finance the purchase of diamonds to burn, something which was probably well-known to the revolutionaries.
So Lavoisier, despite actually being a politically liberal who had worked for many reforms, was vulnerable to the revolutionary fervor of the times. Still, he might have survived, were it not for the fact that he had a famous enemy, one Jean-Paul Marat. Yes, that Marat.
Why did Marat hate Lavoisier? Because, years before, Marat had applied for membership in the French Academy and had been rejected, with Lavoisier being a major factor in the rejection. It seems that Marat had taken to the idea of “animal magnetism” as propounded by Franz Mesmer, a process also called Mesmerism, and which is now called hypnosis. The French Academy had appointed a commission of scientists, which included Lavoisier, and also the American Ambasador, one Benjamin Franklin to look into the matter. The commission concluded that animal magnetism was “the product of mere imagination,” thus dashing Marat’s hopes for acceptance.
Think of it perhaps as being denied tenure.
So fate set up Laviosier for the perfect storm of vengeance, from Marat, over the professional slight, from the revolutionary tribunal over the tax farming business, and perhaps even from those who had been outraged by the extravagance of burning a fabulous gemstone simply to prove that it was just another form of coal.
The story doesn’t end there, though. Lavoisier’s widow remarried, to an Englishman whose language she spoke (in more ways than one) because of her service to her brilliant husband. The Englishman’s name was Benjamin Thompson, also known as Count Rumford. Thompson had been born in America, and was a Tory who fled the colonies after the American Revolution, leaving his wife behind (forever, as it turned out). He conducted studies on the physics of gunpowder explosions and manufactured munitions. During the course of boring out cannons, he took careful measurements of the heat generated. On the basis of those experiments, using the same methods whereby Lavoisier had overthrown the theory of phlogiston he established that one of Lavoisier’s proposed elements, caloric, could not be an element, and must be for form of energy, of motion (albeit, motion at the smallest scale). This was published in 1798.
What part did Marie-Anne play in all of this? She and Thompson were married in 1804 (Thompson’s wife having died some time before), and separated shortly thereafter. So Marie-Anne came too late as Thompson’s wife to be said to have played a role in his earlier researches. Still, there might be more to it all than that, but I’m not sure I can get through all the layers of irony in the stories of these interwoven lives, to say precisely what.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
The Right Formula
Imagine a spring connected to a mass. If you pull on the mass, the spring stretches and exerts a force on the mass. The stronger the force caused by a given extension, the “stiffer” the spring.
Now imagine a lot of different size masses, interconnected by a lot of springs of differing stiffness. Some of the mass-spring combinations will react quickly to any change in the system; other combinations, those with a severe mismatch between mass and spring, will react more slowly. Each combination has what is often called a time constant or a characteristic time for its reaction to change.
When you’re doing a numerical solution of the system (the only option if the system is complex and non-linear), you have to solve the state of the system for one point in time, then for another point somewhat later, a “time step” later, and so on. Some of the mass-spring combinations will require shorter time steps than others, because they have different time constants.
If there are connections between mass-spring combinations of very dissimilar time constants, you have a problem, the stiffness problem in fact. If one part of your system has a time constant of a microsecond, while another has a time constant of an hour, you are going to need billions of time steps to calculate your system for each time step you’d need if you didn’t have that short time step piece to it.
There are some fancy solution algorithms that can deal with the stiffness problem. One of them is called “Gear-Hindemarsh,” and was developed at Lawrence Livermore Labs, originally to facilitate the calculations used in designing thermonuclear weapons. We used it for chemical kinetic calculations in simulating smog chamber experiments. Gear-Hindemarsh is the gold standard for that sort of thing, but it has some problems, especially when you give the system a kick, like turning the lights on or off, or otherwise messing with the boundary conditions in an unsmooth way. Then it becomes pretty inefficient. The first atmospheric smog model produced by Livermore was called LIRAQ, and it spent much of its computing time on the few seconds after sunrise and sunset.
The development group I worked with on the EPA Urban Airshed Model used a different approach to the stiffness problem, called the quasi-steady state approximation. The QSSA makes a few reasonable assumptions, such as the idea that a chemical species that you are treating as being at “steady-state” doesn’t have so much mass that it affects the rest of the system. Imagine an automobile with a bunch of bobble-heads inside. The bobbing of the heads doesn’t affect the behavior of the whole system because their mass is small, relative to the auto itself.
If you react a hydrocarbon with an HO radical, for example, the HO pulls an H off of it to make water plus what is called an acyl radical, a hydrocarbon missing the H. The acyl radical then absorbs an oxygen molecule to form a peroxyacyl radical. This takes a very short time to occur, and we don’t worry about the behavior of the system during the time it takes for the radical to absorb the oxygen. We’ve treated the acyl radical as if it were in steady state.
Of course when there are multiple sources and multiple reaction paths for a QSSA species, the algebra can get more complicated, but it’s not too bad. At least not until the QSSA species begin to react with themselves and each other. In the smog equations, the first place this happened was when we included the reaction of the hydroperoxyl radical, HOO, with itself. That yields oxygen plus hydrogen peroxide (and that’s where the peroxide came from to bleach the guy to death in SunSmoke). The QSSA equations for HOO are quadratic. Fortunately, we have an equation to solve quadratic equations, one we all learned in high school. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong equation.
As you’ll recall (said the character in the pulp novel), the solution to the quadratic equation
aX^2 + bX + c = 0
can be written:
X = -b + [or minus] sqrt(b^2 - 4ac) / 2a
What they don’t usually tell you in high school is what happens when this equation is used on a quadratic that sometimes has the value of “a” as zero. If that happens, we get the dread “divide by zero” condition, and your computer tells you that you’ve just done a Very Bad Thing, and refuses to continue, you naughty person.
It so happens that there is another form of the quadratic equation that they don’t tell you about in high school, or in most colleges, either:
X = 2c / (-b + [or minus] sqrt(b^2 - 4ac))
A little checking tells me that the Wikipedia now gives the alternate formula, no doubt because so many programmers have run into the same problem I did, ‘way back when. I forget exactly where I got the alternate quadratic formula from; it’s penciled into the margins of a handbook I have. Anyway, I used it when I coded the chemistry module for the UAM.
Later, we wound up with more radical-radical cross reactions, and the algebraic QSSA went from quadratic to fifth order. There is no general fifth order solution, so we used a numerical solution called “Newton-Raphson.” I didn’t code the first implementation we did of that, and the program kept blowing up in the QSSA solver. I looked at it and realized that the programmer had used a constant term as the initial value for the Newton-Raphson calculation, and N-R is notoriously sensitive to the initial value. For the best results, you need to start somewhere near the final value. The clever lad that was I realized that if I stripped out all but the HOO quadratic, it was going to be very close to the final value. Using that as the initial value, the N-R calculation usually converged in one or two iterations.
* * *
In 1984, I got very sick. The words “chronic fatigue syndrome” screw up your ability to get health insurance, so I never say that I had CFS on an insurance form, and besides, I was never diagnosed. Nevertheless, I had what was basically a bout of ‘flu that lasted for several years. I was unable to work full time; in 1985, working as a consultant, I averaged maybe 5-10 hours a week working.
I was no longer the go-to guy for working on the kinetics solver, and one person took our module for use in an acid deposition model, Mary, a PhD chemist recently graduated from Cal Tech. She took one look at my “quadratic formula,” saw that it did not conform to what she’d learned in school and replaced it with the “right” version. Of course, it promptly blew up. So she spent the next several weeks putting in all sorts of tests for when the “a” in the formula got too small, switching it over to the linear solution etc. I’m not implying that it took her a lot of effort; she just spent some number of hours over the next few weeks working the bugs out.
When I heard about it, I was, of course, annoyed. It’s one thing to have someone else catch your mistake; it’s quite another when it wasn’t a mistake in the first place.
More recently though, I’ve been working as a technical writer, and I’ve come to understand that I did, in fact, make a mistake. I did not document the tricks I used in the chemical kinetics solver, even the most basic documentation, which is to put comments into the code explaining what was done and why.
I never confronted Mary about the thing in the first place, and she unexpectedly died of a cerebral aneurysm many years ago, so there’s no closure in the cards, unless this essay counts.
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
As I’ve said before, the downtown Y was my “secure beachhead” (to borrow the concept from von Clausewitz’s “On War”) in my exploration and assault upon the world that existed outside of Donelson, Tennessee. Save for the year we lived in Kentucky, I attended YMCA gym and swim classes more or less continually (three times a week or more) from when I was 8 until 16, after having attended every summer from 6-8. It took me longer than usual to learn to swim, so I overcompensated to the extent that I was a lifeguard at the Y pool, beginning at about age 15 and continuing until I left for college.
The building cornerstone said 1912, as I recall, so it stood for well over half a century. It’s gone now, and I have a right to be nostalgic about it, dammit.
Union St. near the Tennessee State Capitol is a fairly steep incline, such that the short block between Capitol and Seventh amounted to almost an entire floor of the YMCA building, with the first floor being below ground level as seen from the front of the building on Seventh. The Seventh St. entrance was the lobby for the Y hotel, as well as being the level of the main locker room. The dormitory rooms, as the men’s hotel rooms were called, were tiny, with barely enough space for a bed and a small desk. I don’t recall seeing the inside of any of the dorm rooms for more than a glance from the hall, and then only on the second floor. It does cause me some puzzlement, these many years later, as to why I had the curiosity to wander over so much of the downtown city, yet remain completely oblivious to a large section of the Y building. I suspect it had to do with the idea that, within that building, I was under its rules, not all of them known to me, so I was much more timid in my explorations there. The reason for the timidity should be apparent: I didn’t want to do anything that annoyed anyone enough to banish me.
It may also have come from the gradual way I encountered the place. At the beginning, I didn’t even know that there was a front entrance. The Capitol Blvd. entrance was the one nearest the bus shelters (all Nashville public transit buses converged on a square in front of the State Capitol), and it was also the entrance to the lobby of the Boys Program lobby.
The lobby of the Boys Program had several ping pong tables, some card tables, a small vending machine nook, plus a couple of glassed in offices and the Program Desk. Past the lobby, through double doors was another large meeting room, with several smaller rooms on the periphery. To the left was a stairway (up to the Main Lobby), an elevator, and a cafeteria. Behind the elevator was a door that led to the pool, not the main doorway, but rather the one that the lifeguards used to dash over, place an order at the cafeteria, then, when it was ready, dash over to retrieve it. During slow periods, of course.
The main entrance for the Boys Program was just to the left of the Desk, and it led to the boys’ locker room and the pool showers. Past the showers was the pool, of course, the main reason why I was going downtown all those years. I mean, when I overcompensate, I overcompensate.
Still, there was a lot more to the Boys Program than swimming, and a lot more to the Y than the pool. Another door from the boys locker room went to the “small gym,” a half court basketball space, plus various gymnastics equipment, like an overhead bar, even parallel bars, rings, and a full size trampoline. I topped out fairly early in all the standard gymnastic endeavors. I managed a floor pike exactly once, though I managed to get proficient at both the overhead bar and p-bar kips, and could manage one on the rings when the stars were aligned. But full floor gymnastics were pretty well beyond my reach; I never got past the roundoff to the back flip. Back flips on the trampoline were not a problem but I was scared of the back ¾ for good reason: half the time I tried it I overshot and knocked the wind out of me.
I could, perhaps, have obsessed my way into becoming a competitive gymnast, but I had neither exceptional native talent nor burning desire. We did have one guy, nicknamed “Cotton” (even blonder than I was, which is hard to imagine) who once managed to place 5th in a regional tournament all by himself (if you totaled up his scores alone). The team as a whole placed 3rd.
Next to the small gym was a weight room. I learned to use the free weights (this was well pre-Nautilus), but again, not my obsession. Past the weight room were stairs that led to the Men’s Locker Room and then to the Big Gym.
And it was mighty big, you betcha. It had a full basketball court and three stories of overhead space. There were various extras on the sidelines, like an overhead ladder. One flight up was a mezzanine, for spectators during basketball games, and at the top was a circular track. I think the gym occupied most of three stories of the building, because I remember outside widows on two facing sides.
To the left as you entered the gym from the stairs were offices, a sun(lamp) room, a massage room, a dry sauna, and (I think) a steam room. This was the heart of the Men’s Athletic Club, which offered daytime exercise and such to Nashville Businessmen. Some while after I’d joined the “Leader’s Club,” a group of teenage boys that served as cheap semi-volunteer labor to assist the teaching of the boy’s classes and as a later source of lifeguards, I realized that the AC was the “connected” part of the enterprise, with links to the business and political community of Nashville.
Still farther up in the building there were three handball courts, which fulfilled every bit of the old Bill Cosby routine, with old men routinely beating the young ones by precision shots into the corner. We also played something called “paddle ball,” which had no relation to the ball-on-a-string thing. It was something of a precursor to racketball, only the ball used was a bit larger than a tennis ball and hollow rubber. The rackets were similar to tennis rackets but had a shorter handle. Sometimes we’d play handball with the paddle balls, especially if someone had forgotten his handball gloves. It was still a good way to pop a blood vessel in your hands, though.
The building was 8 stories, and the roof was tar and gravel. I know because we also went up to the roof a lot in summertime to get at least the hint of a tan. It was a little strange, after all; for a collection of teenagers in ongoing athletic pursuits, we were indoors almost all the time, save for the summer camps and later the Blue Ridge Leaders’ School (more on that some other time), where we’d get sunburns because, well, again, pale from the indoors.
For quite a few years in the 1950s and early 1960s, by far the tallest building in Nashville was the L&C Tower, a whopping 23 stories high. It was downhill from the Y, but of course the 23 stories meant that it was well above the roof of the YMCA building. But for years, it was the only one. Every other building in town was either below us or more or less at eye level. We could go as high as anyone else around. Almost.
Saturday, November 3, 2007
A Quick One about Intellectual Property
I once worked for a fellow who was all gung ho about IP, mostly patents and trademarks. Patents are tricky, and so, to a certain extent are trademarks, but there are a few simple things about trademarks. The most important thing about trademarks is that trademarks are usually lost through abandonment. This should be distinguished from “failure to protect.” By “abandonment” I mean that the trademark owner simply ceases using it, fails to continue to file the paperwork, and so forth. It’s basically someone saying “Hey, this trademark is completely worthless; I’m not putting any effort into it at all.” Often, the owner was some corporate entity that simply ceased to exist.
On the other hand, there have been some famous cases where trademarks went generic. Usually, that happened when there was no good alternative name. The yo-yo was originally the “Yo-Yo Brand Return Type Bandolero Top” which kinda tells the whole story, doesn’t it?
The thing is, my intellectual property-minded boss was full of stories about all the trademarks that had been lost because the trademark owner failed to file a ton of lawsuits to protect the brand. I checked the trademarks he named; every single one of them is till in effect. One of them was particularly interesting. In the early 1980s, the FTC petitioned to have Formica declared generic. This petition failed when Congress explicitly defunded the FTC group handling the case. Hmm.
Since then, we’ve had the “Trademark Dilution Act,” which was expressly written not to protect current trademarks on specific products, like Coke, the beverage, but to strengthen “super-trademarks” on things like Coke, the knapsack. And isn’t that interesting?
So on the one hand, you have businessmen paying lawyers to write “cease and desist” letters to anyone using the trademark in any way that doesn’t stand up and shout “Yes! I acknowledge your grand and awesome power over these letters arranged in this way!” then, on the other hand, you have congresscritters writing up laws to make that grand and awesome power even grander and awesomer.
Howard Hughes once trademarked his own name, in an attempt to keep books from being written about him. It didn’t work then.
It might now.
[No trademark symbols were harmed in the writing of this essay].
Friday, November 2, 2007
Some say it's only a matter of time before an actress blows the whistle on this middle-aged moviemaker. When casting his last project, the silver-tongued, not unattractive manipulator went so fast from flirtation to outrageous passes to outright lewd behavior it left a couple of performers' heads spinning. The guy's tendency to unzip and demand all sorts of hanky-panky has become so talked about around town that many hot young performers are refusing to work on his movies because they're afraid they'll be branded as desperate and easy. – Movieline
In Nashville, when I was a teenager, there weren’t many places you could buy comics. There were a couple of drugstores in Donelson with comics racks, and that was about it. In Downtown Nashville, the pickings were even thinner, with the only comics sales venue within walking distance of the Downtown YMCA being the bus station.
I was told not to go to the bus station, my mother having heard a lurid tale or two. That’s a little funny in retrospect, knowing what I now know about the reputation of YMCA hotels as homosexual assignation spots. For the record, no one ever approached me at the bus station, and in all the years I was at the “Y” I received a total of one single proposition, when I was somewhere around 16-17. I politely declined, the fellow not being the type I’m attracted to, that type being, well, female.
Drugstores also carried the Hollywood gossip magazines, mostly tame things by today’s standards. I must have glanced through some of them from time to time, because I remember two stories that caught my eye. The first was cover billed as about “Jim Nabors’ Secret Heartache,” and the second concerned, “The Pain in Raymond Burr’s Past.” In the first case, the article divulged that Nabors had asthma, and the second noted that Raymond Burr had struggled with a weight problem when he was young. They were bait-and-switch articles, in other words, promising something scandalous, but delivering only yawns.
Much later, I learned that both Burr and Nabors were closeted homosexuals throughout their careers (Burr also married and apparently had a relationship with Natalie Wood, so we’ll leave the veil covering the full nature of his sexuality). So the bait-and-switch was also a wink-wink, nudge-nudge for anyone in the know.
I’m uncertain as to whether or not the magazine in question was the notorious Confidential Magazine, in which case the stories may have been blackmail threats as well, although that sort of thing was mostly early on in the magazine’s history, before they got sued to hell and gone by almost everybody. I mean, they lost a libel action to Liberace. How sloppy do you have to be, to call Liberace a homosexual, get sued, and lose?
The bait-and-switch articles only work if you have a cover for the lurid title as the bait, then the tepid story inside for the switch. If you only have a column to work with, or something too small for a full article, or if you really, really want the salaciousness but don’t want to get sued, you go with the blind item.
This TV superstar is young, pretty and living high on the hog, but she doesn't want to live alone. So she moved a platonic male friend into her fancy digs. He seems like a nice guy, but little does she know what he does when she's away working! First he gets himself high as a kite on drugs. Then, since he has a fetish for call girls, he calls sex magazine ads for the kinkiest gals he can find. He loves pain and pays extra for the girls to bring big sex toys. Where he gets the $300 and up to pay for these sessions is a mystery! Worst of all, the guy gets so drugged up he doesn't realize the call girls are getting into his famous roommate's private things and helping themselves. –Star
The blind item may not have been invented by Walter Winchell, Louella Parsons, and Hedda Hopper but they elevated it to an art form. It’s perfect, really. Totally libel-proof, since there are no names attached, and there need not be a grain of truth in it, just a touch of “truthiness,” scandalous behavior amongst the rich and famous.
But the blind item works best as a shroud for truth. I’ve slid into memoir quite a few times in these essays, and I’ve given some indication of my dancing around with the sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll crowd from time to time ‘way back when (Really, I’ve given all that up. Would I lie?). In fact, there was a time when S&D&R&R had a few other things often appended to it in the common culture, like science fiction or comics, both mainstream and underground (underground comix, boy, there’s a term from the past). I like hanging out with writers, artists, and good looking women and if cheap thrills were to be had, well, in Woody Allen’s immortal line, “It’s all I could afford.”
But discretion, yes, good point, that. People have told me things and short of waterboarding, I think it ill-advised to tell tales out of school. But some of the things were just so cool, and well, by knowing them that makes me cool, right?
And there’s the rub, because as soon as you start thinking that way, the cool just evaporates and leaves behind something rather tacky. Winchell, Parsons, and Hopper, like today’s gossip mongers may be feared, or fascinating, or even monstrous, but they’ll never, ever, be cool, at least not in my dictionary.
So I’ll just do my little dance in the dead of a moonless night, maybe whisper a few things to Amy, or to a close friend, and leave the rest as fiction fodder. That’s actually all they ever are, because even the truest blind item is still fiction, and not very good fiction at that. It fails to convey the true shape of reality that the best fiction can convey.
Still, if I were to mention the phrase “The Greater Bay Area Co-Prosperity Sphere,” there are a few people who would still get a chuckle or give a little snort or remembrance. The possibilities seemed endless once, but it turned out they were merely combinatorial.
A funny thing happened when the glam, famous young wife of the equally glam, famous guy struggling to control his well-concealed drug habit, started turning up at New York self-help meetings. Her intentions were all pure and good, of course, as she was trying to support her hunky hubby in his withdrawal from cocaine and other nasty vices. But insiders on both coasts are abuzz at how close she has become to a fellow attendee of that same self-help group, the sexy executive husband of a well-known, substance-addicted Manhattan A-list socialite. Sure, it all started out innocently, with just two lost, sad souls trying to help each other through some harrowing times. But now their two-person extracurricular support group has flared into a two-person extracurricular support grope. – Hollywood Life