> recent
> calendar
> friends
> other stuff
> profile
> previous 20

Friday, December 12th, 2014
2:30 pm - Food for thought
  • 3.9×1022J : estimated energy contained in the world's fossil fuel reserves as of 2010
  • 2.2×1023J :total global uranium-238 resources (using fast reactor technology)
  • 3.8×1026J : total energy output of the Sun each second

Every single second, the sun outputs more than a thousand times the sum of all of the fossil fuel and nuclear fusion fuel we believe exist on the Earth


(1 comment | comment on this)

Monday, November 24th, 2014
5:05 am - Adventures in Spin Cycle Part 2
So I called up a few experts, and got one consistent opinion back: Sure, it’s a pretty nice washer and dryer set, but a noise like that spells doom. The repair job, they said, would require taking apart the entire washing machine, and replacing the entire drum. The labor alone would be five hundred bucks, and the parts would be another four hundred on top of that. And of course there’s no guarantee that some other part wouldn’t just break on it a month later.

So I poked at the internet some more, and discovered that I could get a new washer and dryer of excellent quality for about two grand, with tax and installation included. (Yeah, I’d have to get rid of the dryer too, because you can’t mix-and-match stackable units.) That’s some serious cheddar. I could also get a used set from craigslist, and haul it across town and manhandle it into place with some help, and scrap the old one. I’d need to fetch my van from SoCal but it could be done. To get a used set that I’d be happy with, I figured it would cost a little over a grand. That’s still serious cheddar, and some rough labor as well.

Then it occurred to me: If I’m going to get a replacement in any case, what’s the harm in taking the old set apart, out of curiosity? I really would like to know what the problem is... And if it turns out to be something I can attempt to fix cheaply, I might try it out, and if not, it will be easier to carry away parts than to haul away a big heavy box, right?

So on this flimsy excuse, I went to work, using a few youtube videos as a guide.


First I had to unstack the dryer, which was really not easy. Take the lid off, remove some fiddly pins, take the front off including the control panel, unbolt some metal tabs, remove some more tabs from the back, lift the thing off without damaging your spine… And now we’ve got the top of the washer exposed.


Unscrew about 20 screws (thank goodness for electric screwdrivers) and remove some plastic tabs, pinch some wire hoseclamps with vise-grips to remove the hoses... Yadda yadda, badabing badaboom...


Here’s the source of the slow leak. A thoroughly corroded electric water valve. How much does this part cost, straight from the manufacturer? Wow, only 12 bucks.


With the back off the washer you can see how most of the inside is occupied by a huge tub, hanging freely from some heavy-duty springs. Yes, that is an actual concrete brick, bolted to the back of the tub there, as ballast. There are other concrete bricks on the front as well. They are there so your off-balance laundry doesn’t make the tub swing around the room like an orangutan every time the washer spins up.

Yes! Your washing machine is full of concrete!


The cat never uses these beds anymore. She prefers to sit on the armchair, or on laps when she can get them to stay in one place. So instead of beds, they are now padding for the electric motor, while I grunt and strain and unfasten those enormous steel springs from the sides of the tub, and drag the tub out into the garage to continue disassembling it.


I had to make another run to Home Depot for supplies. Those very long pliers in the middle there were an impulse buy - they look totally badass, and they only cost nine bucks!


When I removed the pump from the bottom of the machine, I discovered that it contained ancient treasure. Somehow these coins made it out of the metal basket inside the tub and down into the pump. Dude! 60 cents could buy me 6 minutes parking downtown!


I had to remove over a dozen long hex screws before the tub came apart in two halves like an eggshell, revealing the metal basket inside. The basket is the thing that actually holds the laundry and spins. It’s got an axle attached. You can see it resting on the floor in the foreground.

Does something about it strike you as odd?


That’s right! It’s horribly, horribly corroded. In fact, the steel drum is in good shape, but the metal spider-arms that hold it to the axle are so badly corroded that the metal has actually cracked in several places. This metal was constantly immersed in the same water that my clothes were being laundered with. Delicious.


Meanwhile, on the outer tub, you can see that the seals around the bearings were in fabulous shape, simply fabulous. Not.

Between the broken spider-arms making the drum spin way off balance, and the bearings being corroded by ancient seals, no wonder the washing machine was spinning itself to pieces.

So then I had some thinking to do, and some information to gather.

Turns out that the seals and the bearings can be replaced. Even though the manufacturer doesn’t sell those parts, you can buy equivalent parts from a variety of sources. I found several companies willing to sell me bearing and seal replacement kits through Amazon for about 30 bucks. Okay, new valve, new seal and bearings, total of about 45 bucks, this is still in the realm of "hobby" money... How about the spider arms on the metal basket?

Bad news: The only way to get them is to buy an entire replacement basket, with the spider and axle attached. That’s three hundred smackers, right there. That’s big-time money. Whoo!

So at this point, I had an inner debate, which took a few days while the washing machine lay in parts all around the basement and the laundry began to pile up. Do I spent almost 400 dollars, follow the online instructional videos, take another five or six hours to reassemble and re-stack the machine, and hook it up, even though I’m pretty likely to end up with a machine that’s still broken?

I don’t know if these parts will really solve the problem. I’ve never done this repair before. If I screwed something up and had to take it all back apart, I don’t think I’d have the patience for it. I might be throwing good money into a bad machine, based on an inflated sense of what’s possible. The online tutorials all claim that bad bearings are the single most likely cause of my problem, but I personally don’t think the washer could possibly run right without replacing those busted spider arms too.

Right around the time I ran out of clean underwear, I decided to order the parts. "It’s a challenge to my own repair skill," I told myself. "I don’t feel like walking away from this. And hey, when I test the machine and it goes haywire, I can still just disconnect it, get on the phone, and buy another washer and dryer, just like before."

Oh, the justifications. Really, I just did it because I was too stubborn to stop.


The new metal basket arrived in the middle of a truly impressive amount of recycled packing material.


Sadly, the spider arms seem to be made out of the same aluminum/iron pot metal as the earlier set, instead of corrosion-resistant steel. I’ve no idea why. Seriously, Kenmore - why?


Also, what do these things mean?


At least the axle is all shiny and new.

So, I replaced the seals, put the new basket inside the tub, replaced the corroded valve, oiled the motor, put everything back together including the aggravating shock absorbers with their plastic pins, re-stacked the units, drove back in about 45 screws, and moved the appliances back up to the wall. It took two evenings, about eight hours time total. If I was paying myself the same wage as a repairman that I was earning at my "real" job, plus parts, I’d be breaking even.


I even vacuumed the lint out of the inside of the dryer. (Good grief what a mess.)

But finally, I hooked up the hoses, plugged in the cord, threw in some sacrificial rags without any soap, set the controls, and stood back.

The damn thing works.

I think I’ve actually succeeded with this repair! It’s been about ten days now, and the washing machine has not leaked a singled drop of water, and run through every spin cycle without trouble. I’ve washed all my laundry and sheets, and the housemate has run four or five loads as well. You can bet I watched it like a hawk when it was doing the first new load, but now I’ve started to relax. It looks like my washer has its mojo back.

And I’m still not completely 100% convinced, but it looks like I’ve saved myself upwards of 700 bucks.


(4 comments | comment on this)

3:50 am - Adventures in Spin Cycle
It’s been a little bit over a year since I purchased my home. I can summarize how it’s been going in one short phrase: By the seat of my pants!


I’m not an electrician; I’m not a plumber; I’m not a landscaper or a builder or a repairman. But somehow I’ve been dealing with things as they come up, and also dealing with the increased financial pressure by pushing my comfort zone.

Of course, the risk with that is, you can try a new thing and fail, and end up wasting precious money and time.

About a month ago my washing machine - a stackable Kenmore unit with a matching dryer anchored on top - started making a really loud banging sound every time it hit the spin cycle, like it was trying to jackhammer a hole in itself from the inside out. I tried rebalancing the washer and running it through a few more loads just in case the noise was temporary, but I had to cancel it each time before the final rinse, and squeeze the clothes out by hand and run them in the dryer for hours to finish my laundry. On top of that, the washer developed a slow leak, and a dark patch began spreading on the basement floor.


I peeled off the front panel and looked around, and discovered that one of the shock absorbers on the side of the drum was broken. Well gee, it seems a shame to discard an entire washing machine if that little thing is the problem…


I noted the model number on the inside of the door and dashed to the internet, and discovered that Sears stopped making this particular model almost ten years ago. Very discouraging. Then I found a number of websites where you could order replacement parts, including one from Sears itself, with numbered schematics and diagrams for each model they made. Amazing! This internet thing is really catching on.

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 3.24.36 AM

So I ordered a new pair of shock absorbers. Only about 20 bucks plus shipping, very affordable for an experiment in machine repair. When the package arrived, I found some printed step-by-step instructions inside.


The shock absorbers have a plastic loop on each end, and they attach with big plastic pins stuck through the loops. The pins are a serious hassle to remove, especially in the cramped area underneath the tub inside the washing machine. You have to hold down a plastic tooth on one side of the pin, then pull it hard from the other side to get it out. I discovered that it was possible to hold the tooth down by putting a socket wrench over the end of the pin, but there wasn’t enough room on the other side to for anything but my hand, and I couldn’t grip the pin hard enough to pull on it.

So I assembled pulling tools out of zipties. One loop was kept large, so I could put it over my thumb. The other was tightened just under the head of the pin, so I could push forward with my hand, and it would pull up on the head.


I tried a whole bunch of different tools, but the little ziptie gadgets were the only thing that worked. Eventually I had both old shock absorbers out, and all the stupid white pins as well.


Installing the new shock absorbers was much easier than removing the old ones. The pins can be shoved into place with a chisel and a hammer.


And that, I thought, was the end of it. I’ve replaced the visibly broken part; the washing machine should be fixed, right?

Wrong. The fixed set of shock absorbers did absolutely nothing to deter that hideous jackhammer sound. With the front cover off I could see the drum smashing against the sides of the machine. It was scary just how much force was involved.

At that point I said, "Okay, I tried. Now it’s time to call in some experts."

(Continued in Part 2)

(comment on this)

Saturday, October 11th, 2014
9:29 pm - Hindi Mix 2
The first Hindi Mix was so much fun to assemble, it was inevitable that I would make another one!

I already had a heap of good tracks to weave together, but what I didn't have was a good angle. Eventually I found one by accident. Messing around in Ableton Live, I noticed that a jazzy version of "Chura Liya" - the leading track from the first mix - overlaid nicely with "Dhoom Again", my favorite goofy track from my favorite goofy Hindi movie. (I already stole loops from "Dhoom Again" for a Braindead Monkeys track back in 2008.) That was all it took for inspiration to strike. What better way to start a sequel than with a song about being in a sequel?

Aside from the intro, my favorite thing about this second mix is the commercial breaks I got to graft in, from India's Doordarshan TV network. That Complan commercial - fortified powdered milk being sold as a "complete nutrition" drink, to aspirational lower-middle-class moms - is hilarious, catchy, and offensive, all at the same time. "Your skirt, can't you see, so high above the knee??"


  • (00:00) S.P. Balasubrahmanyam & V. Sarma - China Daani Chirunavvulu (From "Doob Doob O' Rama 2")
  • (00:25) Charanjit Singh - Chura Liya Hai Tum Ne (From "Bollywood Steel Guitar")
  • (00:25) Vishal Dadlani & Dominique Cerejo - Dhoom Again (From "Dhoom: 2 Back in Action" ST)
  • (03:08) Howard Shore - You Can Find The Feeling (Radio Edit) (From "The Cell" ST)
  • (04:39) Cheb i Sabbah - Kese Kese (Transglobal Underground Where's The Sarangi Mix) (From "Bollywood Fusions")
  • (05:59) Commercial break music (From "Full Tension", a variety show by Jaspal Bhatti)
  • (06:01) Achanak - Panjab Bhangra (From "Bombay Bellywood: Bellydance Superstars")
  • (07:07) Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy - Shankar Mahadevan (From "Dil Chahta Hai" ST)
  • (09:37) Asha Bhosle & Shailendra Singh - Jaane Do Naa (From "Saagar" ST)
  • (10:32) Bally Sagoo - Aaj Phir Jeene Ki (Guide) [Stolen Loop] (From "Bollywood Flashback 2")
  • (12:39) Daler Mehndi - Gilli Kand Par (From "Ho Jayegi Balle Balle")
  • (14:33) David Starfire - Cobra (From "Bombay Bellywood: Bellydance Superstars")
  • (16:25) Complan advertisement (Recorded from Doordarshan)
  • (17:03) Najma - Miskatonic (From "Bombay Bellywood: Bellydance Superstars")
  • (19:54) Jolly Mukherjee & Sridevi - Chandni O Meri Chandni (From "The Rough Guide To Bollywood Gold")
  • (22:45) Filastine feat. Jesika Skeletalia Kenney - Autology (From "Bombay Bellywood: Bellydance Superstars")
  • (22:55) Station ID sequence (From Doordarshan)
  • (25:57) Ajanta musical clocks commercial (Recorded from Doordarshan)
  • (26:26) Rahul Dev Burman - Kya Gazab Karte Ho Jee (From "Beginner's Guide to Bollywood: Vintage Bollywood")
  • (27:06) Club K3G - Suraj Hua Madham (Oriental Twilight Mix) [Stolen Loop] (From "Lounge Bollywood")
  • (28:36) Surf Stain Eaters advertisement (Recorded from Doordarshan)
  • (29:00) Rapoon - Circling Globes (From "The Fires Of The Borderlands")
  • (29:06) A. R. Rahman - Rukkumani Rukkumani (From "Roja" ST)
  • (33:48) A. R. Rahman & Ismail Darbar - Woh Kisna Hai (From "Kisna" ST)
  • (37:40) Kishore Kumar - Ina Mina Dika (From "Doob Doob O' Rama 2")
  • (38:57) Pritam - Yeh Ishq Hai (Film version extracted from "Jab We Met" blu-ray)
  • (41:48) Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy - Jhoom Jam (From "Jhoom Barabar Jhoom" ST)
  • (44:23) Asha Bhosle - O Mera Sona (Teesri Manzil) (From "The Best of Asha Bhosle: The Golden Voice of Bollywood")
  • (47:55) Solace - Saptak [The Samaya Mix] (From "Bollywood Fusions")
  • (51:35) Ranjeet Baal Party - Aey Jawanon (From "Gangs Of Wasseypur" ST)
  • (52:59) Asha Bhosle - Aao Huzoor Tum Ko (Caravan) (From "The Best of Asha Bhosle: The Golden Voice of Bollywood")
  • (55:24) Coca-Cola advertisement (Recorded from Doordarshan)
  • (56:13) Sameeruddin - Tadbeer Se Bigdi Hui Taqdeer (Destiny mix) (From "The Streets of Bollywood and Beyond")
  • (57:56) DJ Fixed - Altered "Loader Fight" loop (From "Battery Sentinel")
  • (58:00) Basil Poledouris - Atlantean Sword (From "Conan The Barbarian" ST)
  • (58:30) Maachis - Pani Pani Re (From "Lata Mangeshkar")
All tracks have been edited and/or processed, with additional loops or sound effects thrown in to spice things up. I basically had to run "Tadbeer Se Bigdi Hui Taqdeer (Destiny mix)" through a paper shredder, and reconstitute it, to isolate that funky beat progression from a whole bunch of other ill-advised hip-hop shenanigans. My pain is your gain!


(2 comments | comment on this)

4:52 am - The History of "Loader Fight"
In 1998 or so, a music track I made got published on a CD called "Battery Sentinel". It was a compilation CD announcing a new record label created by my friend-of-a-friend Ben Arp. I also had tracks on the second and third compilation CDs and was asked to do a full album, but I never felt inspired enough by any one theme. Then a few months later my friends and I accidentally formed a "band" called The Braindead Monkeys, and that satisfied my music production interests for the next 10 years or so.

Here's an Apple-lossless version of the track, for posterity.

Nice and spooky, eh?
Aaaaah I remember those days.
Let me tell you about this music, and some of the silly technology that went into it.

"Loader Fight" is assembled almost completely from samples taken from the films "Aliens" and "The Abyss" (both directed by James "Iron Jim" Cameron in the 1980's.)
I had both movies on laserdisc, so I decided I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity, and extract the sounds of both movies in the highest quality I could find - and then mess with them.

What's laserdisc you ask?
Laserdisc was a bizarre semi-digital storage format that put audio and video on gigantic iridescent platters, like an oversized CD with two playable sides.

Here's an example of one, next to a regular CD for size. If you're not sure how big a CD is, well... Hey, how's it going in the future? Have I paid off my mortgage yet?

These things were HUGE, and very pretty looking. The large size of the discs made them awkward to use, though, and the way they stored the video signal was quite complicated. Pretty soon DVDs became popular, and they made laserdiscs look really stupid, and people began abandoning the format. In the late 90's you could walk into a record shop or a video store and find a whole bin filled with "special edition" versions of movies, sometimes really rare stuff, all on laserdisc, with discount prices, slowly gathering dust. That's how I found the "special edition" versions of both "Aliens" and "The Abyss", as well as really cool box sets of "Fantasia", "Dune", and "Akira".

Here's what this version of "Aliens" looked like:

The whole box weighed something like 7 pounds, and when I found it in the bargain bin it cost 40 dollars.
These days you could get a WAY, WAY BETTER version of the movie - with just as many special features - on blu-ray for less than 1/3 that amount, brand-new. Less than 1/4 if you consider inflation. And both the television and the blu-ray player would cost less too.

Hooray for progress!

This is what my laserdisc player looked like.

This is a model made by Pioneer. I got it for free from my friend Andy, who in turn got it for free through some nefarious means. I think he actually stole it from somewhere. I could ask him about it I suppose, but it's not like it matters. If you wanted to buy one - and I have no idea why you would, really I don't - you could get one off eBay for 45 bucks plus shipping. Then you could plug it in, insert a laserdisc, and listen to it slowly go vvvvrrrrrrrrrrooooooooooo as it spun the disc up to some insane RPM inside the box, generating a whole lot of waste heat.

Anyway, laserdisc players had this feature where they could do "digital audio out" on the back, if you plugged in an optical cable. I had an optical cable, as well as a sound card for my computer that would supposedly accept a digital input of the same type, but after fiddling with it for weeks I couldn't get it to work. Turns out that even though the connectors were the same, the digital signal emitted by the player was incompatible with the signal expected by the audio card in the computer. A complete standards fail. Utter disaster. The Pioneer player made a digital signal that could ONLY be read by specific compatible digital amplifiers - also made by Pioneer.

(Right about here I would actually insert about half a dozen strong curse words, out of habit, based on the years I spent working in the Apple computer labs. I would call Pioneer a bunch of bungling morons who shipped a box full of roasted electronic garbage and called it a product, and then overcharged for the privilege of tooling around their own stupid mistakes. Of course, I'd be saying all that out of a desire to amuse my fellow engineers and motivate them to do better. If you say it in a silly-sounding voice and include a few fart noises, the idea comes across.)

So what I did was, I ran cables from the analog audio output of the laserdisc player instead, to the analog audio in on my computer. I effectively went from digital to analog and back again. But that was still pretty good. It was WAY better than anything I could have scraped off of a VHS tape, for example. Most of those weren't even in stereo. Hah!

Once I had the audio in the computer, I cut it into all kinds of little pieces with names like "Abyss-chain_draw-loud" and "Aliens-loader_stomp_2-loop" and so on. Here's all the pieces I eventually used in the song:

The construction of the music, from raw samples to finished version, took about 80 hours I think. I worked in bursts of four or five hours, spread out over several months. The program I used was called CoolEdit Pro, and it looked like this:

That's a screen shot of the sample arrangement for the first two minutes of the song. See the highlighted region? The chunks in that region are the "hi-hat" part of the drum loop. Each chunk is a consolidation of a bunch of smaller samples, with additional bizarre filters applied to the whole chunk. I built the original "hi-hat" sequence in another file, a piece at a time, and it looked like this:

That's how we did things back in the old days. Actually that's how we do it noawadays, too. The only difference is that we have more freedom to go back and tweak the settings earlier in the process without re-doing a lot of work.

Anyway, when my composition hit the two minute mark, the program had so many samples in it that it was starting to slow down, so I finished it in another session, then grafted the parts together. Here's the second part:

I actually built two endings to the track - a first draft, and then an alternate. I eventually went with the alternate. Just for the heck of it, here's an MP3 version of the first draft ending. It's a fun concept, but the alternate works better as a composition I think.

Aaah, these walks down memory lane are fun. Well, fun for me anyway. Thanks for coming along for the ride!

(3 comments | comment on this)

Monday, September 22nd, 2014
11:29 am - A few things about a few books
Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett (2014)

A bit darker and more thrilling than earlier entries in the series, with just a handful of laugh-out-loud moments, which is a disappointment only if you’re comparing this to Pratchett’s usual hilarious work. I’d still give it a 7 out of 10.

Shattered Dreams: My Life As A Polygamist’s Bride, by Irene Spencer (2007)

For a while I was keen to read about harrowing experiences in organized religion, and this was my window into the not-so-distant past of the Mormon church. The poverty, humiliation, and mental manipulation of the protagonist - and most of the other women she knew - at the hands of what were basically religiously glorified and sanctioned sexual predators, was fascinating and appalling, like a bad dream that defies expectations by getting worse and worse, without ever actually waking you up.

Unfortunately this book sags in the middle when Irene resigns herself to fate, on a destitute ranch somewhere in Mexico, and marks year after year of her passing life by pumping out children for her sleazeball of a husband. I stopped reading it after one too many pauses where I had to yell out to the quiet room: "What is wrong with you, woman? Stand up for yourself! Emancipate yourself! Recognize what your own choices are leading you into!"

This gets a 5 out of 10. It certainly didn’t do Irene any credit that she was only freed from the tyranny of this evil bastard when he died in a car accident. She stuck with him to the end, even though all she ever got from him was a sack-cloth dress, and rape.

The Long War, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (2014)

Okay, so now we get the idea. Pratchett and Baxter are using this series as a sandbox for a bunch of tenuously connected alternate-Earth stories. Interesting, but, they uncover and begin exploring so many mysteries that I fear this is going to turn into a literary version of the Lost TV show, where you’re drawn more and more into the author’s apparent grand plan, eagerly guessing how it will all fit together, only to find out that there was never any grand plan at all, and the things that don’t fit together "yet" just don’t fit together, period.

So I tried to take this as an anthology. In that context, it’s still a pretty good read. 6 out of 10 snarling dog-people up.

Banished, by Lauren Drain (2013)

Continuing my religious kick. An interesting look into the ugly inner circle of the Westboro Baptist Church. As you’d expect, it’s populated by sociopaths and sycophants, and the pathetic children they’ve either spawned or adopted. Lauren was lucky enough to foster a few connections to the outside world and she escaped. An insightful and gossipy read. 6 out of 10.

The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason (2013)

I know it sounds strange to say, and it’s clearly my own fault for choosing the reading list I do, but it’s refreshing to read a fantasy novel with young women as the main characters that was written by a young woman. I can’t give any itemized account of differences, and even if I attempted to it would just invite accusations of gender stereotyping, but there was something I really enjoyed here, in this blend of lighthearted adventure, and enthusiastic digressions over wardrobe and setting, and the lack of frivolous "grit" or a tiresome "tragic past".

The ending was inconclusive, but I didn’t care - I was eager to spend another series of afternoons with these characters dashing about their pastiche alternate world. 7 steampunk rivets out of 10.

Naked In Baghdad by Anne Garrels (2004)

A first-hand account of the opening of the recent Iraq war by a tough-as-nails correspondent. An efficient and honest you-are-there narrative that doesn’t contain much direct philosophizing or introspection, but eagerly invites it in the reader. Just what you’d expect from a journalist, actually. 7.5 loose bricks out of 10.

Bryant And May #10: The Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler (2013)

Another good entry in the series. Chases, interviews, guided tours of English architectural history, and plenty of bon-mots from the irascible Arthur Bryant. A solid competitor to Terry Prachett for reading pleasure. 8 hidden needles with mysterious poison out of 10.

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis (2014)

This book takes what is potentially a very boring, dry subject, and makes it entertaining by focusing on the characters involved. I’m glad I read it, even if all it did was confirm the level - and nature - of the digital corruption that I already assumed was infecting the world stock market. In a nutshell: Insider trading is now built-in, and the trading platforms exist mainly to provide an easy method for useless middle-men to extract money from the process.

This Book Is Full Of Spiders by David Wong (2013)

Very entertaining, in a B-movie sort of way. If you want more of the vibe of Big Trouble In LIttle China and Bill And Ted, with a couple of genuinely horrifying scenes thrown in for variety, check this out. Sometimes the author indulges his philosophical side too much, but he makes up for it with excellent humor.

The Long Mars by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (2014)

About half of this book concerns a splinter group of humanity called The Next, young super-geniuses who, as one reviewer nicely puts it, "reminded me unfavorably of my grandson's smart-aleck geek buddies when they were in high school."

I didn’t care for that half. The Next were a nonsensical mashup of physiology-defying intellectual powers and ridiculous adolescent angst. I assume we’ll learn their fate in future sequels, but I’m not looking forward to it. It’s hard to get invested in characters when their motives don’t make sense.

The other half was an exploration of the titular long Mars, and it was pretty darned interesting, even though a lot of it felt like recycled material from Stephen Baxter’s other work. The guy is in love with the early Russian and U.S. space programs, and he clearly hijacked this series, fast-forwarding the timeline past a large chunk of the Long Earth’s new history just to make the leap to Mars feel plausible. He also distorted the basic premise of "stepping" way out of shape, by declaring that a human could "step" between worlds and casually bring along an entire two-man glider, with luggage and passenger, plus a wind-envelope of unknown size all around the vehicle. How? Well, because we can’t explore the Long Mars otherwise, that’s how.

What a cheat.

Mary O’Reilly Book 1: Loose Ends by Terri Reid (2012)

This had a promising beginning, but somewhere in the second half I lost my grip on the author’s idea of "ghosts" and what they were supposed to be. Wandering souls, or just unresolved fragments of people? Corporeal or not? Able to appear to anyone, or just the "sensitive"? Stuck in one place, or able to travel? Can they make noise? Do they know what they need, or not? It seemed to change based on narrative convenience. Plus, if the villain were any more one-dimensional, he would vanish entirely.

4 out of 10 bloody handprints up.

Life On Mars: Tales from the New Frontier (2011)

These stories were all excellent, and were enhanced further by the "about the author" and "author’s note" sections that came after each one. I was impressed by the socio-political content as well. The authors not only asked "what would humanity do to Mars" but "what would Mars to do humanity" and they came up with some fascinating answers. 7 out of 10 atmosphere-skimming surf pods up.

(1 comment | comment on this)

Friday, September 5th, 2014
9:16 pm - Light gathering
If something looks odd about this picture, it's because it was taken at 3:00 in the morning.


Oh okay I suppose that's believable, right? Long exposure times make strange shadows. I took this one around the same time:


It's all on account of Kerry's camera having a 1.4-aperture lens. I've been obsessing about lenses lately - again - and I decided to walk around and use her camera to help figure out what I wanted.


Of course the exercise is academic, because I'm saving money for a new roof. But in a way, that doesn't matter. It turns out that I get a fair amount of enjoyment and satisfaction from the big purchases I make during the time before I make them, when I'm considering the options. I love to consider options.


So how many options is TOO many options, and how much time can I spend obsessing before it becomes a problem?

Well, usually the most intense thinking happens when I've narrowed the list down to less than five things.

The same thing happened when I was shopping for sunglasses recently. I opened fifty browser tabs, one after the other, just clicking on anything that looked semi-acceptable. Then I cut the fifty tabs down to less than five. All of that took about twenty minutes. Choosing among the remaining four took another half-hour and I had to come back to it a few times between other tasks. It was like, leaving the decision almost-made, then not making it for a while, was a fundamental part of my whole decision-making process.

How hard can it be to pick among four things that are all pretty good anyway? Not hard. But I found a bit of pleasure in lingering. Part of me enjoyed the delay, savored it even, after all the clearly bad options were eliminated.

I don't know if this is a good way to behave in general. It's probably meaningless to say so, either way, because it's a behavior that's useful sometimes and aggravating at other times.


And that's the way it is right now, with camera lenses. I'm down to three options, after exhaustive research.

Do I go for the 70-200mm 2.8-aperture lens that would be versatile, but heavy?

Do I go for the 28-300mm lens that would let me frame almost any kind of shot, anywhere I go, but has poor low-light performance?

Or do I go for the 1.2-aperture 85mm lens, like the one I'm walking around with on Kerry's camera right now? An ultra-narrow depth of field like 1.2, with no zoom, is very difficult and restrictive to work with. But the way it separates the foreground from the background, and the absurd amount of light it collects, can get me some shots that look absolutely unreal.

This one, for example, was taken in an almost totally dark room, without a tripod:


If I was just talking about night photography, there'd be no debate.

But if I'm going to be traveling, wouldn't a zoom lens be the only way to get all the shots I want?

Or maybe, if I want to go wide-angle, I can just take pictures with my phone instead. Decent wide-angle shots combined with the spellbinding medium shots of the 1.2 lens would be an adequate substitute for a real zoom lens, right?


I don't know. Do I come back from a trip with 250 good-looking shots, or 15 amazing shots that could serve as movie posters for Lord Of The Rings? I like night and macro photography and I'm pretty good at both, but I also just love taking pictures of everything everywhere and telling stories about it.


FIRST WORLD ... FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS ... *duh nuh nuh nuh duh nuh nuh nuh*

(comment on this)

7:40 pm - Plastic bags
Oakland has a separate recycling mechanism for plastic bags, relative to the standard throw-it-in-the-can method we used for everything that has a little symbol on it.

There are free dropoff points for plastic bags around the city, and if you feel like a good samaritan, you can haul your bags out there and stuff them in.


This is approximately eight months' worth of plastic bags for three people.

Some of it was wrapped around vegetables from the supermarket. Some of it was peeled off the lids of yogurt and soup and sour cream containers. Some was used to transport cables, or batteries, or zipties, or bread, or bars of soap. There are bags in here from restaurants, hardware stores, pharmacies, gas stations. A surprising amount of it was packing material that arrived in the mail.


One night I stuffed it all into my bike trailer and pedaled it out to the recycling kiosk outside the Safeway.

I don't know where it goes from there, but I hope at least that it stays out of the ocean.

The big bucket back at the house remained empty for about two days. Then I received a piece of junk mail - a catalog - wrapped in plastic. The plastic went into the bucket.

(comment on this)

7:39 pm - The lengths a person will go to, to avoid driving in San Francisco…
The stickers make it look cooler than it is. It's actually an aluminum table that folds up nicely for camping.


Found it on Craigslist. It would have taken me just as long to find rush-hour parking for my van, I swear!

The guy I bought it from said he transported it on his motorcycle once. The whole time he was riding, he had to keep muttering to himself, "don't lane split ... DON'T LANE SPLIT ..."

I could relate! I had to fight my instinct to move as close to the side of the lane as possible.

No accidents, thank goodness.

(comment on this)

7:03 pm - Upgrade-itis

So I've been running on the same Mac Pro for about nine years. That's a pretty incredible stretch of time for a computer nerd to be using the same computer.

Over that time I've:

  • Upgraded the video card four times
  • Installed a Blu-ray drive
  • Migrated my boot drive to an SSD
  • Expanded the hard drive capacity a dozen times or more
  • Installed a wireless module, mail-ordered from a shifty Chinese part supplier
  • Installed a SATA expansion card (two if you count the one that didn't work)
  • Installed a USB3 expansion card

I would have upgraded the RAM too, but it was already maxed out.

Not a bad run of upgrades for one system. But earlier this year, some internal component blew up, and the rear fan stopped working. I installed a firmware hack to spin the other fans faster, but the inside of the case was still getting uncomfortably hot.

So I prowled around the Craigslist ads for a few months, until I found the right system at the right price, and performed a brain transplant:


At the same time I bought a little gadget that hooks up to my wireless network and tells me how much electricity a single power socket is using in the house. So I put it on the socket leading to my computer and stereo setup.

When I transferred to the new machine, my power consumption dropped by about 40 watts. That was nice, but it was nothing compared to how much my whole system uses:


That's about 400 watts when the system is awake!

Eventually I realized that my old amplifier is a POWER HOG, even when it's not playing any music, and when I shut it off the usage instantly drops by another 200 watts. Good grief. That explains why it's also a pretty decent space heater.

Of course as soon as I was done with the upgrade, I booted into Skyrim to check out the increased graphics performance.


It was pretty good!


Then I lost several hours to digital homesteading. I acquired digital lumber and digital stone, and made some parts on a digital forge, and pretty soon I was buying furniture and hanging weapons on the walls.

(comment on this)

6:16 pm - More Housenanegans
Almost 20 years ago a friend of mine had a radio program at KDVS, where he played experimental/industrial music. The studio had a mechanism for recording the shows to tape, so I hoarded them and eventually they became files on my iPod. Turns out they're the perfect soundtrack to home repairs:


Here's the problem: A leaky faucet. Somewhere up in the guts of the faucet mechanism, a seal has failed, and water dribbles into the cabinet below every time someone uses the sink.


Things could have been a lot worse... The faucet could have had a constant slow leak, turning the wall to mush and filling the cabinet with mold before anyone noticed. Water damage is evil.

Aside from a replacement faucet, I needed two new things for this operation:


That's a "telescoping basin wrench" and a set of "pipe-wrench pliers" with little silicone covers so they can work on fragile things.


The replacement operation took about four hours, including the research I did online and the shopping trip I made on my bike. The trickiest part was getting the basin wrench up behind the sink so I could unscrew the old hoses. If I hadn't learned about that tool from an online video, the operation would have been nearly impossible.


A nice little bit of amateur-level maintenance, and a few more tools for the basement.

(comment on this)

Sunday, August 24th, 2014
1:50 pm - Arthur C Clarke Round 14: Can't Get Enough O' Super Golden Clarke

Cold War, 1957

A silly story about a submarine captain who attempts to grow a gigantic artificial iceberg on the hull of his submarine and then push the thing onto the Florida beach as a practical joke. Clarke seems to think that one could create an iceberg by inflating a gigantic plastic bag with "supercooled air", laying it across a scaffolding, then spraying water at it. Maybe he did some math that I haven't done, but my gut feeling is that the process would totally fail.

Icebergs form in weather where vast areas of the sea and the sky are below the freezing temperature of regular water. (Saltwater can be well below the freezing temperature of regular water and remain a liquid.) If you had to spray water on a floating bag, the skin of the bag would have to contend with the heat in all the surrounding atmosphere, and you would need to be constantly pumping the air inside the bag through whatever you're using as refrigeration machinery. You'd need to make some incredibly cold air to overcome that constant loss.

Then consider that Clarke intends to do this in the ocean. Where is he getting the water? He can't just draw it in from the sea, that water is incredibly salty and will be very resistant to freezing. Did he invent some kind of instant desalinization technique back in 1957?

I suppose this story worked as intended since it got me thinking about the physics. Other than that it was not memorable.

Who's There, 1958

An astronaut takes a spacewalk in what appears to be a haunted spacesuit, in this brief and smartly constructed story. I enjoyed it despite knowing it was completely ridiculous, and in spite of guessing the plot twist only a few pages in. (A couple of red herrings could have eliminated that problem, I think.)

The Man Who Ploughed the Sea, 1957

One of Clarke's good-old-boy scientists goes on a meandering trip down the American coast and winds up on a boat that is actually a piece of prototype mining equipment, extracting tiny amounts of various elements from seawater. Clarke must have been obsessed with the ocean this year. Then more scientists get involved, and there's a sliver of dramatic tension as Clarke whips up an intellectual competition between them. If not for that tension the story would just be a plotless guided tour, past a few mildly interesting exhibits in a museum of technological spitballing.

The idea of extracting minerals from seawater has been repeatedly explored in the intervening half-century, but the general problem is always the same: None of the filtering techniques are passive enough to justify the energy expenditure in sorting out one atom of uranium from, say, 500 million water molecules. Plus the elements are usually bonded to others and require further work to separate.

Still, it's an intriguing idea. And it's unfair to fault Clarke for not being a fortune teller or a strict scientist. He was a writer, not a scientist.

Let There Be Light, 1957

This isn't really science fiction, and it isn't really a murder mystery since the murder is admitted at the very beginning. Harry Purvis just tells the story straight, explaining how a scientist decides to get revenge on his cheating wife by using a searchlight to blind a speeding car and cause a fatal accident.

With a little reorganization, this could be the plot to some overly-dramatic radio crime drama from two decades earlier. It would have suspiciously loud footsteps, interstitial organ music, and the constant noise of a thunderstorm. When the detective and his pretty assistant wander out onto the moors to examine the crash site, there would be enough twittering insects, yipping animals, and croaking amphibians to populate an entire zoo.

Also, the whole thing would be sponsored by "Clarke Brand Cigarrette Holders", and the detective would take a smoke break right in the middle of the story and ramble for almost five minutes about how durable his cigarette holder is.

Sleeping Beauty, 1957

This is a little story about a guy who gets an injection from his mad-scientist uncle, in order to eliminate his snoring, and instead it completely eliminates his need for sleep. At first it's a blessing, but eventually the sheer boredom of staying up all night - every night - frustrates him so much that he asks his uncle to reverse the condition. Instead, his uncle accidentally drops him into a coma, then inconveniently dies and takes all his research with him, so no one knows how to wake the guy up.

The story ends with the guy peacefully inert, and the rest of the family carrying on without him. There's some framing intrigue about his conniving wife and a promised inheritance, but it's not worth considering. We've already established at this point that Clarke does not think much of women and this is just fuel for the fire.

Perhaps I'm supposed to make some exculpatory aside about this story being a product of 1950's-era gender views - like I shouldn't be complaining if I deliberately read stories from an earlier era - but that wouldn't be honest. I read this stuff and it bothers me. None of the science, or the ficton, behind any of these stories actually requires that women be portrayed less like human beings and more like housecats wearing clothing, which is what Clarke does. No, really; women seem to exist in his stories as finicky pets who divide their time between chasing shiny things and throwing hissy-fits. Clarke is a man of far-flung scientific curiosity - why did he feel the need to dress-down his work with this unnecessary patronizing?

Still, I would rather focus on the central idea of the story, so I'm going to do that now. How would I react if I could do without sleep? Well, I have access to some pretty amazing modern technology, and I'm already a bit of a night owl, and I live in a big city. If I didn't need to sleep, I would probably spend each day like so:

  • 4:00am to noon: Put in a day at work. Schedule all my meetings to end before noon.
  • noon to 4:00pm: Engage in some kind of volunteer work, or a second job, involving the outdoors.
  • 4:00pm to 8:00pm: Take off via bicycle to some relaxing part of the city - a park, a coffee shop, a lake or hillside with a view. Walk, hike, chat on the phone, or bring someone along. End with dinner.
  • 8:00pm to 4:00am: Do home projects. Read and write, mostly, or arrange music, or fuss with electronics, or root around in the garden. I love stuff like this; I'm a major homebody.

Sounds great, really. How would you divide up a 24-hour day? Would you go crazy? Run out of things to do? What could you accomplish if you never had to stop for a nap?

(5 comments | comment on this)

Saturday, August 9th, 2014
2:19 am - TOP FIVE
Okay, so, this is not news to anyone, but lately I've been thinking about how any random collection of words suddenly becomes intriguing if you stick it in the context of a top five list.

Here are a few random examples. Notice how you suddenly wish they were all links you could follow.


I feel compelled to actually compile these lists even as I'm writing down the names. Anybody care to tackle one?

(5 comments | comment on this)

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014
2:58 am - Arthur C Clarke Round 13: Humans Is The Crraaaziest Peoples

The Defenestration Of Ermintrude Inch, 1957

A scientist makes a device that counts spoken words, then challenges his annoying chatterbox wife to a contest to get her to shut up, then when she cheats at the contest, he allegedly throws her out the window.

I think can comfortably speak for female readers in this case, even though I have a penis, by saying to Arthur C Clarke: Grow up, you jackass.

Big Game Hunt, 1956

A very strange story about a scientist who invents a device that can "remote control" living creatures by electrically stimulating their nervous systems, making their muscles move. He eventually takes the device out into the middle of the ocean, drops it overboard, and uses it to compel monstrous sea-creatures to swim to the surface for observation.

I lost count of the holes in the premise - impossiblities in physics and biology, mostly - but the story was short and well-framed enough to remain compelling. Plus I always like it when stories end in disaster for the protagonist.

Critical Mass, 1949

A silly story about a bunch of scientists getting obsessed with radioactivity and panicking over a car accident. I saw the big plot twist way too early. Nothing to see here; move on ...

The Next Tenants, 1957

A rogue scientist is exploring some termite colonies, possibly mutated by man-made radiation. Another scientist in charge of a local nuclear test gets curious, and investigates. Turns out the termites are rapidly learning to use technology, and the rogue scientist is deliberately training them.

The narrative framing is only barely enough to justify the explorative conversation between the two scientists. That's okay - the premise is pretty interesting, even if a more thorough study of the mechanisms that drive an insect colony does not actually bear it out. It may be true that a hive mind is a kind of mind, and it's reasonable to expect that a mind is capable of learning, but to meet that expectation you have to twist and squash your definition of "learn" into something quite foreign.

I believe a termite colony "thinks" in a way closer to how our bodies "think", if one sets the brain aside and considers the body as a collective of individual cells. The technological advances made by the termites in Clarke's story would be equivalent to our bodies hanging around for a while and then suddenly redesigning the layout of our lungs to be more efficient, or making our eyes sensitive to infra-red, or turning our feet into hands, or whatever else makes life easier. Bodies just aren't that innovative - especially for no good reason.

Besides, fundamental changes like those would require a reworking of the way our bodies are grown, from the embryo on up. In the same way, sprawling insect colonies are grown in an orderly fashion from a tiny handful of individual insects. Where is the "hive mind" in this process? It can't dictate the terms of the colony if it doesn't even exist yet. No, changes in growth have to come from something more fundamental. Changes in genes, for example?

There's a bacterium that lives in the guts of all termites that helps it digest wood. It has its own genome, and its own genetic history, even though its symbiotic relationship with the termite is millions of years old. If you think about it, you can just about imagine how the arrangement started. Some insect was eating a plant that grew on wood, and ingested a piece of wood that also had this wood-eating bacteria on it. Perhaps the insect died, perhaps not, but this scenario probably repeated itself for quite a long while in some part of the world, and eventually the insects that could tolerate the bacterium outlived their peers. Then the bacterium started hanging out in their stomachs permanently, after the first time they ate it, and those insects lived even longer because the bacterium was excreting extra nutrients while digesting useless wood. The insects could now eat something their peers couldn't, giving them another food source. Then at some point an insect laid an egg that carried the bacteria along, which cemented the advantage. And the first terminte colony was born.

This process obviously took an incredibly long time, and was also thoroughly dependent on external factors. Selection pressures. How does this path to innovation compare to the simple "training exercises" that Clarke's scientist puts his termite colony through, building them little sleds and tools? Well, it's hard to imagine anything more different, actually. Selection pressures, working on a pliable organism, created a hive mind in termites over millions of years, the same way it gave them the ability to digest wood. How reasonable is it to expect that such a hive mind can be reshaped in a matter of days by handing "it" an instruction manual?

As an aside - another aside, really - this whole scenario reminds me of the "anthropic principle". Put simply, it means that things are the way they are around us because if they were too different, we wouldn't be around to observe and comment on them ... and invoke concepts like the "anthropic principle" in the first place. The definition is a little bit self-referential, yes.

Anyway it comes to mind because it makes an interesting comment about evolution, and the mechamisms of evolution on our planet Earth. Suppose rudimentary life formed billions of years ago, but the mechanism was a little too much like clockwork - a little too accurate. Natural selection can't operate very much on a life form that's highly resistant to change. Consider the opposite scenario - life formed billions of years ago, and was too pliable, constantly changing and mutating even without external selection pressure. Generation after generation, the organisms with good survival skills would reproduce - and then fail to pass on their survival skills. Life would quickly extinguish itself. In either scenario, there would never be any chance of constructing "highly evolved" creatures like ourselves.

But ... here we are. So, we can confidently assume that the organisms leading up to us were just flexible enough to mutate in interesting new directions, and also just consistent enough to pass good survival skills down the generations, and eventually even hang on to old baggage in case it becomes useful later on. Otherwise: No humans. No one around to make any observations or assumptions.

How many billions of planets all around us are absolutely stuffed with single-celled life, having independently created it from bizarre tidal chemistry, or having been seeded with it by frozen tough-as-nails spacefaring granules ... yet without any of those tiny organisms ever getting flexible enough to form bodies, and spinal cords, and limbs and brains and critters declaring their own anthropic principle?

What if we live in a universe that's sloshing with life in all directions, yet still contains no one else to talk to?

It's an interesting question, and it also defines a spectrum for us to consider. We may be surrounded by life, and it may even be large animals, and yet still not possess intelligence sufficient to hold a conversation with us. In fact the precedent here on Earth is not encouraging: Animals no more intelligent than the average chicken have been dominant most of the time, and in a hundred thousand years or so, our own rise to world dominance has already crossed the threshold from destructive to self-destructive. High intelligence may actually be a major disadvantage, past the first few thousand generations. Our fate as a species might have been sealed with the first symbol we carved on a cave wall.

(2 comments | comment on this)

Sunday, August 3rd, 2014
11:35 pm - Toorcamp 2014 DJ Set: Too Many Moths + DJ Fixed
A mashup of 8-bit nostalgia, chiptunes, and crazed industrial music, with a few surprises thrown in. The inpiration for ToorCamp's first ever mosh pit!

Part 0x0
Featuring tracks from RushJet1, Dave Harris, Crash84, 8-bit Jin, 8BitDanooct1 and more. Pew pew pew!!

Part 0x1
Featuring tracks from Current Value, YZYX, Dean Rodell, coda, Whourkr and more. I PUT ON MY ROBE AND WIZARD HAT.

(comment on this)

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014
2:23 am - Mercenary

I follow behind my liege while she hurtles across the landscape on a horse named Daft Wooley. Sometimes she rides over waterfalls, or along the sides of vertical cliffs. It takes me a long time to detour around these things. I keep expecting to catch up and find her mangled at the bottom of some thousand-foot drop, at the center of a big horse-colored pancake. Somehow it never happens.

Adventure in the wilderness is great - just what I wanted when I took this job - but I think the cross-country travel is my least favorite part. Usually she gallops ahead, making just enough noise to wake up every wolf, bear, highwayman, and thug in the area, and then as I come sprinting along behind her they chop at my heels. I'm almost always caught in a brawl. The worst that happens to her is a few arrows in Daft Wooley's backside, which they both ignore. Nothing slows her down short of a dragon attack. ... And those just long enough for her to kill the dragon.

On the other hand, when she's taking her time it can be even worse. She'll jump the horse over some wall I can't climb, and I'll run half a mile around to a gap in the stones, then sprint back just in time to see her turn and jump over the wall again. She'll wander off the road and spend an afternoon picking snowberries by a cave, while I get slapped around by whatever comes prowling out, then I'll haul ten pounds of berries and an animal skin back to the apothecary. I once spent an entire day, from sunrise to sunset, dog-paddling in the ocean off the northern shore, in a full set of armor. Nothing to eat, nothing to drink, nothing to look at but floating ice and Daft Wooley's hairy butt, churning the water. That horse ignores cold just like he ignores arrows.

I do a lot of fighting, because my liege has got quite a reputation, and she's constantly defending it. Outside the cities, most people attack her on sight. I've lost count of the people I've helped her smash, dismember, blow up, fry, or vaporize. People must be emigrating to this country by the cartload, just to balance out our personal death toll. I'm sure we're in the thousands by now. To assist in her dirty-work, she gave me a full suit of armor, a warhammer, three staffs of lightning, an enormous thorny rose on a stick that conjures demons, and a truncheon-shaped object called the "Wabbajack" that has a terrifying or hilarious effect on any living creature I bludgeon. Once I hit a guy with it and he transformed into a sweetroll, which my liege picked up and ate. I'd worry that the gods will punish me for all this violence, but I'm pretty sure that half these weapons I'm using were gifts from the gods in the first place. So - I don't know. Theology is complicated.

A long time ago she mastered smithing and learned how to transmute iron ore into silver and gold. Now, I'm carrying around a tangled wad of jewelry. Rings, necklaces, and circlets, all festooned with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, garnets, and all of them with powerful enchantments. Every time we pass through a town, she makes more of them at the forge. They’re all squished into the bottom of my pack - a glittering wad the size of a pumpkin. I’m carrying enough loot on my back to throw the economy of Skyrim into complete turmoil.

A few days ago she walked into an herbalist's shop and bought everything in the place from roof to ceiling, then paid by handing over a single diamond ring that was worth more than the building and the land it was on. "Keep the change," she said.

It's a sickness. She doesn't need the money; she just can't stop making them. The wad never gets any smaller. Back at her house in Whiterun the table is heaped with raw materials, waiting to become more treasure.

I can't remember what I used to do before this. If I ever get dismissed I'm supposed to make my way home - but where was that? Did I have friends before? A family? All I remember is fighting, and mountainsides, and caverns, and running, and the glowing eyes of the undead.

Actually, maybe I'm one of the living dead. Maybe I came from one of these haunted mausoleums my liege is always blundering around inside. A soul in bondage to this madwoman, like that spectral wolf she keeps summoning.

The wolf ... What is that thing? Did a talking wolf die, or did the ghost of an ordinary wolf start talking? Either way it’s unnatural. And she has a sick attitude. She's always making puns, and then barking laughter at them, and deliberately setting off every trap we find. And her breath stinks. She's non-corporeal, so I think she chooses to have bad breath, just to be annoying. My liege calls her "Comedy Wolf" and I can't tell if she's being ironic.

Sometimes I shoot arrows into Comedy Wolf, by "accident". She laughs at me as she disappears. Then a few minutes later she’s back, fouling the air with more bad puns, and starting another fight.

One day I cornered her in an alcove, while my liege was busy interrogating a priest a few rooms away. "Hey! Wolf!" I said, with my voice low, and turned on her. "Why are you always making trouble? You’re a summoned spirit. You’re a familiar. You’re bound by magic to help us, but instead you make a complete mess, all the time! Why?"

It was the first time I’d ever seen the wolf look surprised. She cocked her head to one side, and stared up at me.

"I’m helping the master," she growled.

"No you’re not!" I hissed back. "How is it helping, to cause chaos everywhere we go?"

She stared at me for a few more drawn-out seconds, then glanced around the room.

"Well?" I said, exasperated. I considered stabbing the wolf, just to get her to fade away for a while and leave me in peace. I reached for my sword.

Comedy Wolf grinned a huge glowing smile.

"I’m keeping things ... interesting!"

"That is not help," I said.

"It helps all of us. Things have to be interesting for the master."

She lowered her nose, staring more fully into my eyes with her own.

"If the master loses interest... We all die."

I found her serious tone even more disturbing than her usual irreverent one. "The master - like some demigod? A big dragon somewhere? What are you talking about?"

She looked meaningfully out of the alcove, up the hallway behind me, where my liege had gone. Then she trotted around me and disappeared in that direction. A few seconds later I heard the priest scream in rage as she bit him on the leg, followed by a clatter of weaponry and some confused shouting from farther away. When I wandered into the room it was on fire, and my liege was shooting arrows at a pair of guards who were hunkered down behind the altar. The priest was hopping on one foot, backwards, and waving a truncheon at Comedy Wolf, who was playing tug-of-war with the hem of his robe. The wolf’s eerie laughter echoed off the walls, mixed with the sound of rising flames.

Even though it was probably just another example of her bizarre sense of humor, that conversation lingered with me. What did she mean by "the master?" I tried to think of the most powerful creature I knew of - and there were many to choose from, since I’d been criss-crossing all over Skyrim, climbing mountains and plundering catacombs behind my liege. I’ve met kings and dragons and demons and vampires. Most of those meetings ended violently.

And then, a few days later, I was running like mad, trying to get some distance from an enormous bear. It had been upset by Daft Wooley’s thunderous passage, and as I rounded the corner and caught up with the horse, my liege turned around in the saddle and absent-mindedly shot a bolt of lightning from her hand, which killed the bear instantly, and struck with such power that the beast was fully cooked when it the ground. I could hear it sizzling twenty yards away. At first the sound didn’t register - because after all, this was just a typical encounter. Yep, just another typical ...

And suddenly it came to me. Who is the most badass creature in all of Skyrim?

I’ve started picking fights with clergymen and making bad puns. Anything to keep it interesting...

(2 comments | comment on this)

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014
2:31 am - February 6th, inside my brain at 4:30am

I was manager of a theme park. I had a spiffy uniform and everything. Admission was free, and guests were supposed to go from one exhibit to the next in a specific order, participating in different situations, and learning interesting philosophical lessons along the way. But the theme park had a problem with people who would wander in, then go from exhibit to exhibit and ignore the lessons, but instead eat the food that was laid out on the tables and then run off. They were exploiting it for a free lunch. I was standing on a lawn, having just caught one particular troublemaker - a little kid - and I was lecturing him about the importance of participation. I didn’t want to ban him from the park, but if he kept exploiting it, I would.

"Hmm, I wonder if the exhibits are all working properly?" I said. "Maybe people are getting confused and just eating the food because it’s there? I better run through the exhibits to check."

The first "exhibit" started immediately, while I stood there. A huge flock of seagulls flew in, from a grassy field next to the park, and one of them squawked at me, "Help! We’re running from some predatory owls and we need to be guided through the park! Can you guide us?"

I began running, while the cloud of seagulls flapped around me. I ran with them for a while and then they flew off. Job done, I guess. Then I came to a stop at a picnic table. There were two people seated at it, side by side. There was a huge scientific instrument between them, kind of like a cross between an oversized microscope and an overhead projector. On the picnic table, beneath the instrument, they had placed a frozen pizza.

They were examining it closely, and invited me to join in. I looked at it through the lens of the instrument, observing a wavy, impressionistic wash of pastel colors, like a painting. It was very pretty. While I was examining it I reached down and took a triangular slice out of the pizza and ate it. It wasn’t very tasty. Then I moved on to the next "exhibit".

There were five or six more exhibits. I can’t remember any of the details, but they were all variations on two things: Chasing or guiding someone, and examining food. I remember getting to the last exhibit and standing up from a park bench, dusting crumbs from a sandwich off my shirt, and thinking to myself, "Oh damn!! I’ve just totally done exactly what I’ve been trying to stop other people from doing! I ran through the exhibits and ate all the food! How embarrassing."

Then I stood there, thinking. "Wait a minute. There’s something funny about this whole setup." I turned around and began running back the way I came, towards the starting area of the park. As I ran, I reversed time. All the deeds I did while performing in the exhibits played themselves backwards, resulting in the opposite outcomes. Fleeing criminals got un-caught. Enemies got un-defeated. Finally I arrived back at the lawn, surrounded by the seagulls, who were squawking again for safe passage from the 'predatory owls'."

Instead I kept running, into the grassy field, and the cloud of seagulls turned back and followed me, reversing their course. Only about 50 yards into the field the cloud of seagulls was suddenly met by a cloud of owls, coming the other way! A huge brawl erupted, with feathers flying.

When it was all done, one of the owls landed on my shoulder and said, "Thank you for helping us catch those seagulls! They were wanted criminals, fleeing from our country. Now they have been given justice. For your good deed, we will reward you."

I laid down on the grass, face, down, relaxing, and one by one, the owls landed on my back, crowding in closely. After more than a dozen had landed, they all began flapping, and lifted me off the ground. I spread my arms, and glided along as the landscape spread out beneath me. Beyond the field I saw a rocky section of high desert. In the desert was a huge dilapidated victorian house - a haunted house, that I could visit and explore if I wanted. Also in the desert was a black ring of rocks, like the impact debris from a meteor. In the center of the ring was a smaller pile of rocks. I remember seeing other interesting places to visit too, but the memory comes with no details of any kind.

The owls flew me over the desert and came to rest on the branch of a huge eucalyptus tree. I spread my limbs out on the branches to avoid falling while the owls arranged themselves around me and groomed. One owl explained that they were all going to relax here while I made up my mind about where I wanted them to take me. On my back, I could feel Mira the cat resting between my shoulder blades.

I said I wanted them to fly me to the little mound of rocks in the center of the crater. I would meditate there, in the heat, and sleep for a while. The owls all piled onto my back again, crowding around Mira, and slowly we lifted off. They made sure not to tilt too much, to keep Mira from tumbling out into the sky.

I don’t remember reaching the crater. It’s all a huge blur, and the only thing I remember after that is from much later. I’m wandering around a kind of netherworld, in the streets and hallways of a city that is a twisted replica of some town from the waking world, except here there is no electricity and no sun, so everyone wanders around in the dark or with lanterns.

I remember accidentally wandering around in a big circle, and coming across rooms I’d already seen, but the details were different, like the windows were on a different wall, or the furniture was in a different layout, or et cetera. There was a group of people I was exploring with, but I’d (stupidly) gone off alone, and now the netherworld was actively sabotaging my effort to find my group again. Out of frustration, and in part to "punish" the world itself for conspiring against me, I began to knock furniture over and break windows.

The dream broke apart with the intensity of my temper tantrum, and I woke up.

(1 comment | comment on this)

Monday, July 21st, 2014
12:42 am - Arthur C Clarke Round 12: Rendezvous With Drama Llama

The Pacifist, 1956

When I was a kid I had a silly fascination with making the computer - a cold and impartial box of wires and plastic - spew bizarre insults onto its screen, in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS, or better yet, blurt them out loud in a mangled metallic voice, indiscriminately, to anyone passing by. Family members and fellow students, mostly.

It took a certain amount of obsession to get the computer to sound angry, by messing with the stream of raw phonemes that made each word, and my friends and I were divided on which was funnier - a robotic voice that sounded hostile, or one that called people things like "cack-headed pie crust snorter" in a flat, dispassionate monotone. We could never settle the debate, but as time passed, we did uncover a general rule: The more realistic the voice technology got, the funnier it was to call people hideous things with it in monotone.

We still amuse ourselves with stuff like this 25 years later, of course. The joke of making your phone fart and then excuse itself is today's variation on the theme.

Anyway, this short story is about an extremely early occurrence of a computer being manipulated to spew insults, and though it's fiction, I found it totally believable. It was a short, fun, read - and oddly nostalgic.

Publicity Campaign, 1953

This story was just long enough to make a funny point. Hit-it-and-quit-it, as James Brown would say. A mass-media advertising blitz to raise awareness of an expensive new "alien invasion" movie reaches its peak, just as an emissary for an actual alien race attempts to make contact by showing up in person and strolling around. Violent hijinks ensue, repeatedly, and the leader of the expedition blows a gasket and sterilizes the entire surface of the Earth. That'll show 'em!

Yes, there's the usual Clarkeian hand-wringing just under the surface, but this time he kept the tone light and fleet enough that I didn't mind.

Venture To The Moon, 1956

A series of short tales woven together, all about the antics of scientists on the moon. Just about all the science was shown to be inaccurate over the next decade, but it's hard to care when the stories are so entertaining.

This is Clarke writing to his strengths, using a scenario he's very comfortable with: What happens when you get a bunch of excited good-old-boy scientists together and drop them in the middle of an exotic phenomenon? Investigation - the forming of questions and the a-ha moment of discovering the answers - is the extent of the plotting here. Manly competition is the extent of the drama.

Actually, Clarke did extend the drama beyond manly competiton, in one part, and the result is kind of distateful. He brings in the only female character anywhere in the series of tales, and she turns out to be a repugnant gold-digger. Way to win hearts, Mr. Clarke.

The Ultimate Melody, 1957

A just-about-short-enough story about a scientist who invents a machine that reads brainwaves to zero in on the "ultimate melody", a tonal composition that is so incredibly catchy that it jams the brain of any listener into a permanent loop. I can't decide if this story was too long for such a paper-thin premise, or too short instead. Imagine the crime you could commit with a recording of that song and a good pair of earplugs. Imagine the havoc you could wreak on the battlefield.

Remember that Monty Python skit about a joke so funny that it made people die laughing, and how it was instantly militarized and used in the war effort? Clarke could have rolled in that direction and told a nice satirical tale long before the Pythons came along. Or imagine an orchestra passing out sheet music, only a few bars per person, and then playing it at a concert. Imagine them getting it slightly wrong, and causing everyone in the audience to babble incoherently for days, instead of merely going catatonic. Or scrambling their vocabulary around for some reason. Imagine some curious parishoners throwing the Bible through a borrowed analysis engine and discovering that various passages had a similar scrambling effect. One of the people involved could get overexposed to the "right" passages and turn into a prophet, then they could make the process repeatable and generate an army of whacked-out prophets, all claiming to know different versions of the future.

So many directions to go in!

(1 comment | comment on this)

Thursday, July 10th, 2014
11:45 pm - Arthur C Clarke Round 11: Eleven Clarkers Clarking

Patent Pending, 1954

I was startled to discover that the premise of this story is a strong precursor to a film I saw called Strange Days, which was scripted by James Cameron and directed by none other than Kathryn Bigelow way back in 1995. The film is graphic, and bizarre, and flawed, and totally fascinating, and it takes a premise almost identical to the one in this story to a very dark and disturbing place.

Clarke's exploration is as lighthearted as the movie's is grave, mainly due to the framing device of his chatty storyteller Harry Purvis. I can happily recommend both the movie and this story.

Also I find it interesting that the central technology in both these stories - a device that can record and then play back the experiences of another person - eventually slips past the grasp of both Clarke and Cameron. With this technology loosed into the world they then have no idea where it will ultimately take mankind, or how it will ultimately settle into the cultural landscape, ... so they just leave it hanging.

For a possible exploration of this, in another flawed but totally fascinating story, check out "The Light Of Other Days".

Refugee, 1955

Sometimes listening to these short stories in sequence makes for some bizarre contrast. Refugee comes right after Patent Pending, but while Patent Pending is old-school speculative science fiction, Refugee barely qualifies as science-fiction at all. Instead it's concerned with the plight of British royalty, and the attempt by one fictional prince to escape the fishbowl of public scrutiny by stowing away on a spaceship and having a little carefree adventure.

Maybe it's a cultural thing, and I'll never understand the appeal of a royal family, or living vicariously through one, but I found this story as boring as heck.

Moving Spirit, 1957

A Trifling little Harry Purvis tale that's mostly a courtroom farce, and would barely fill out the corners of your average Law And Order episode. I'm surprised it was published.

The Reluctant Orchid, 1956

This story is basically a revenge fantasy gone wrong. Although the descriptions of the titular plant are interesting, the rest of the characters are cardboard.

Not one of Clarke's best. And boy, he really doesn't seem to think much of women. Yeah, the male protagonist in this story is equally repugnant, but with women, Clark's got a pattern going across all these stories. It's hard to miss.

What Goes Up, 1956

This tale was told amusingly enough, but the kinks in the treatment of physics were just too bizarre and inconsistent for me. With every paragraph I caught myself saying, "That doesn't make sense!" or "Hey that completely contradicts what just happened!"

I don't mind "soft" sci-fi; I really don't. But this story didn't even have internal consistency, and without a few interesting characters or some witty dialogue, I was adrift. I find it telling that Clarke decided to frame the whole thing in the context of an unreliable narrator. The fellow telling the story-within-a-story was charged with making the whole thing up to impress people ... and if he did, where does that leave us?

(comment on this)

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014
11:12 am - Chaos in Skyrim
I took Comedy Wolf to meet the local royalty. She didn't make a good impression...

Her attitude is better suited for adventuring, I think:

Meanwhile, my hourse Daft Wooley tends to wander off when I'm not looking. Sometimes I find him stranded in impossible places, like halfway up a sheer rock face, or on the opposite bank of a deep river. After the fifth or sixth time I developed a theory to explain it.

Daft Wooley is so stupid he sometimes forgets to be subject to the forces of gravity.

Sometimes this comes in handy of course. If you point him in exactly the right direction he will easily gallop right down the side of an 80-degree incline. Then, if you stop him halfway, he will stand upright with two hooves perched on thin air.

He stole my camera once. I found this on it later:

(comment on this)

> previous 20
> top of page