Meet the Inmates

Chris Naron
Vidad MaGoodn
Vidad's Flaming Drones of Death
Rigel Kent
Henry the V
Al, The New Guy
Michael Maier
Flicka Spumoni
Passin Through
Sean, the Were-seal
Water Buffalo
Frau im Mond
Ian McLeod
Captain Slack
J. Max Wilson
Carl V.
Damaged Justice

Recent Posts


Powered by Blogger

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Multi-Generational Thingie: Some Final Thoughts

It's early morning, on the last day of 2008. But it is not merely morning; it's one of those wonderfully clear, cold, and crisp winter mornings we get up here in the north country. The sun is still well below the horizon: at this time of year it doesn't rise until nearly 8 a.m. The sky is one flawless and unbroken wash of color, cross-fading from rosy false dawn in the southeast to deep blue and starry in the northwest. The plume of steam from my neighbor's chimney is rising nearly straight up, slowly and gently, meaning there's little or no wind — which is good, because at -5° F it's already cold enough out there. Down in the garden a cottontail is gnawing on a piece of bark in the firewood pile. With six inches of fresh global warming on the ground since yesterday, there's nothing else left for it to eat except buckthorn, and even starving rabbits won't touch buckthorn.

It is said that Nature abhors a vacuum. Looking out my backyard window, day after day, month after month, year after year, it seems clear to me that Nature also abhors stasis.

And yet that's what we're talking about, isn't it, when we talk about building a generation ship: about building a giant, perfect, static, habitat for humanity; a veritable terrarium in space? The sort of hubris required to believe that you can build a perfect world in a bottle is, on the face of it, staggering.

But then the literature of science fiction, the world of political science, and the realms of the social engineers have never lacked for microcosmic gods.

In the foregoing discussion, WaterBoy asked how I define a closed society. I would have to define it as one with no pressure-relief valve; no mechanism to disrupt the stasis; no opportunity to rebel without courting utter disaster. A perfectly closed society is one from which there is no escape, except by dying.

We Americans have always had a strangely romantic of rebellion, and especially failed rebellions. Perhaps it's because for most of the past 500 years this entire continent has been nothing but one giant pressure-relief valve. I don't know about you, but at least one set of my ancestors came to America after ending up on the wrong side of a failed rebellion in Europe.

Everywhere else on Earth and in history, rebellions, successful or otherwise, have always been followed by the traditional mass slaughter of the losers. For a terribly brief period — a mere five centuries — this pattern was changed by the existence of a giant, continent-sized pressure relief valve they called the New World. These Americas were settled largely by the losers of Europe, who emigrated, fled, or otherwise escaped here. (And also by the losers of Africa, who were shipped over and sold here, but that is a different story.) Two hundred and forty years ago the losers in the American Revolution — in our history books we call them "Tories" and never mention them again — fled either north to Canada, south to the Bahamas, or deeper into the continent. One hundred and sixty years ago the losers in the Civil War fled again, some to South America, but most even deeper into the West. (For an excellent explication of this latter theme, I recommend reading, And Die in the West, by Paula Mitchell Marks.)

Yes, I know, I'm playing fast and loose with dates. There is a reason for this. Stay with me.

Slightly over a century ago, in 1890, the pressure-relief valve began to close. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, this was the year that the frontier officially ceased to exist. There was no longer any boundary between settled and unsettled lands, or explored and unexplored territory; now all that was left was to fill in the blanks. Perhaps not coincidentally, in 1896 the frontier of the imagination can be said to have officially opened, with the founding of the first pulp fiction magazine, Argosy.

A decade after that, and the Progressive movement was in flower, exploring the frontier of the terrarium and calling it Utopia. If there can be said to be one grand unifying idea underlying all the different flavors of Progressivism, it is this: that instead of Man creating Society, it was now time for Society to begin creating a new and better form of Man.

I for one deeply distrust people who truly believe Utopia is attainable. They always start out talking about the joys of living in their perfect world in a bottle, but sooner or later get around to talking about the unpleasant necessity of weeding out those who are not fit to live there. Whenever someone starts talking about the need to change Man to better suit Society, be afraid; be very afraid.

The creative synergism is always difficult to explain. I was thinking about the Civil War — which, the more I consider it, closely resembles its contemporaries, Bismarck's wars of German unification and Garibaldi's wars of Italian unification, and therefore should properly be termed Lincoln's War of American Unification —

Anyway I was thinking about the war, and the giant pressure-relief valve that was the Wild West, and concurrently ruminating over my theory that no closed society survives more than from three to five generations after its founding. Okay, let's split the difference and call it four generations. Just how long is four generations?

Well, from a purely biological standpoint it can be as short as 50 years or as long as 160, but let's accept the conventional definition and say that one generation is 20 years, and therefore four generations is eighty years. Expressed another way, that's four-score years.
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure..."
It doesn't line up with mathematical pseudo-scientific psycho-historical precision, of course. This is an organic system we're talking about, after all, and in an organic system there is always a fair amount of slop. But the pattern seems to hold true with disquieting accuracy.

In 1695, Americans were for the most part the loyal subjects of the King of England. By 1775 rebellion was at a furious boil, and the lid was about to blow off the kettle. The nation that emerged from the smoke and fire of Yorktown a decade later would have been unrecognizable to the Americans of even two generations before. A land without a king, where even Jews and Catholics were allowed to practice their religions freely? Unthinkable!

Four generations later, the pattern repeats. By 1855 the Republic was coming apart at the seams, and the idea that America was composed of a voluntary union of separate but equal states died in Mr. Lincoln's war. The nation that emerged from the smoke and fire of Gettysburg would have been unrecognizable to the Americans of an earlier generation — which many of them proved, by fleeing into the Wild West. A land where even n*ggers were allowed to vote and own property? Unthinkable!

Four more generations? That puts us in or around 1935, and while the popular image of that decade now is of soup lines, Oakies, bank robbers and depression glass, the nation was much closer to the brink of disintegration than people now like to admit. There were authentic Fascist plots to overthrow the government. There were Communist plots. In the end FDR somehow held the country together, with considerable unintentional assistance from the Japanese and Germans, but as my parents never got tired of pointing out, the nation that emerged from the Great Depression and World War II was one that would have been unrecognizable to the people of the 1920s. There is ample evidence to support this assertion. If we accept that science fiction is collective secular prophecy packaged in commercially marketable form, then the science fiction of the 1920s proves that the world of 1950 was unthinkable to the people of only twenty years earlier.

What about now? Today? I'm a science fiction writer, and having observed the failures of many others before me makes me reluctant to prognosticate. However, I can't help but notice that we are approaching the 80th anniversary of the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, and that every 80 years or so we seem to spew up a truly transformational leader who for better or worse rewrites the terms of the social contract.

Do the times make the man or does the man define his time? I don't know. All I know for certain is this: Nature abhors stasis. And this leads me to wonder whether this four-generations principle has nothing to do with whether a society is closed or open, but is only more readily visible in a closed society.

Or perhaps our society is not so open after all...

Conclusion? I have no conclusion. I've held off clicking the [Publish Post] button for hours now, in hopes of coming up with a stirring and inspirational conclusion, but the best I've been able to come up with is an observation. Like it or not, we are all here together on this giant multi-generational spaceship we call the Earth, traveling into the future at Time Factor 1X. The only thing we can be certain of now is that things will change, and what matters most to and your posterity is how you react and adapt to this change.

And with that thought, I wish you all a happy, safe, and successful New Year.

Nil desperandum,

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Multi-Generational Thingie, Continued

There are plenty of directions in which we can start prospecting for a story idea, once we establish base camp at this premise. How do we create a closed, stable, hermetically sealed society that will survive a generations-long voyage aboard a starship? In his juvenile novels Heinlein tended to favor organizing microcosmic societies along paramilitary lines, which is a great idea if you're also planning to sell your novels as serials in Boy's Life. (A market which, sadly, vanished about fifty years ago.) Most people of socialistic bent eventually hit on the idea of using paramilitary organizations as an effective way to indoctrinate and discipline their young. Sometimes it even works — for a while.

Alternatively, you can consider using religion as your general purpose societal adhesive. Unfortunately these sorts of stories tend to be written mostly by lazy writers with poor research skills and only a dim understanding of the workings of actual religions, who focus on the suffocating, oppressive, punitive, and claustrophobic aspects and tend to cast their heroes and heroines as the lone iconoclasts who discover that The Priests Are Lying And They Alone Know The Truth; e.g., "For The World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky". But even the Amish, who most people accept as having about as religiously closed a community as can be, do not have a truly closed society, as five minutes' cursory research suffices to prove.

Then there's the problem of over-adaptation. Once they've spent a few generations adapting to life on-board the ship, how do you get 'em off the bluddy thing at the end of the journey? A sufficiently clever, evil, and cynical mission designer might specify that the ship essentially self-destructs at the end of the journey, thus forcing the passengers to disembark. But given enough time, any such destruction mechanism can be disarmed, or more interestingly, diverted to other purposes. Maybe there's a story in that. "Five centuries ago, their ancestors were sent to Proximi Centauri. Now they're back — and boy, are they pissed."

What about reaction mass? Assuming the ship was accelerated up to some worthwhile fraction of c as it left Earth, you'd need nearly as much fuel to decelerate it at the end of the trip. Phil Jennings and I played intellectual hacky-sack with this one for a while but never came up with a answer we agreed on. Maybe the ship doesn't slow and the crew never disembarks? Maybe it just keeps on going, seeding every potentially habitable planet it comes across with human-like colonists sufficiently genetically modified to survive under local conditions? James Blish worked this idea over sixty years ago, and Ursula Le Guin forty years ago, but it strikes me that from the viewpoint of another species, this might constitute an act of war. "AIIEEE! There's a terrible giant mystery ship passing through our solar system and it's seeding our planet with hideous alien monsters!" Maybe there's a story in that. Or at least a script treatment...

Hmm. Hideous monsters. At any significant fraction of c, hitting pretty much any dust mote or stray sub-atomic particle would trigger a spatter of ionizing radiation. Assuming your ship has something resembling a front end, it would need some awesome shielding there to protect the inhabitants, but even so the accumulated exposure to heavy radiation over the course of several generations would produce — well, most likely a plague of cancers that exterminates the crew, but let's be kinder and imagine mutations instead. For a while I toyed with that idea: what if the multi-generation crew is expendable, and the real colonists are all in some sort of cryostasis in a heavily shielded cargo hold? There are many stories that could spring from this. What if the colonists are recognizably human children, shipped as frozen embryos and being raised on the colony world by loving but hideously deformed monsters? What if two competing colonies and cultures get established: the planned colony of "perfect" humans and the unplanned colony created by the surviving monstrous descendants of the ship's crew? What if the crew tumbles onto the fact that they are considered expendable, and start to view the frozen colonists as a source of transplantable body parts to maintain their cancerous, malformed, and increasingly cybernetically augmented bodies? Or better yet, what if they start to view the colonists as just so much frozen food?

Yeah, there are some great stories that could be spun out of those ideas.

But ultimately the idea for the story I got closest to starting to write was remarkably similar to the one that, quite independently, Henry came up with. What if someone invents a religion, for the sole purpose of getting control over lots of very affluent but otherwise very stupid people? What if someone is so convinced of the rightness of his apocalyptic vision that he uses the wealth of his followers to build an Ark in Space, to send the descendants of the Chosen Ones to another world? But the gimmick is, it's all a con, as the inner circle knows the technology to send a ship across interstellar distances doesn't really exist, and so the real plan is that the ship will just take a leisurely one- or two-century-long excursion around the solar system and then return to Earth, where it is expected that things will have settled down again and the Earthbound survivors, if any, will treat the returning ship's passengers as gods.

Except, of course, that when they return to Earth (truly believing that they are in fact arriving at an alien but strangely parallel planet in another star system — they're otnay ootay rightbay, after all), they discover that the predicted apocalypse has not happened. And so, earnestly believing themselves to be enlightened star voyagers, they plunge headlong into this "new" society, sanctimoniously determined to prevent it from repeating the same mistakes that destroyed Old Earth!

There. That is the story that I liked.

The place where I got bogged down was the religion. I didn't want to use a real religion; I have no desire to draw the attention of either litigious and affluent a-holes or the sort of people who slit the throats of infidels. So I figured this would have to be a nonsense religion, of the sort that could only possibly appeal to people with great gobs of money, enormous egos, and very tiny brains. I figured I'd make this religion one started as a joke by some 1940s musician of modest talent, in which followers gathered in "listening rooms," put on headphones and listened to recordings of Big Bill Broonzy and Bessie Smith, and meditated (at affordable hourly rates) on the profound spiritual implications of the color blue. I was thinking of calling this religion, "Cyantodigy."

And that's when the whole thing fell apart...

Monday, December 29, 2008

And the winner is...

This past weekend's quick getaway turned out to be not quite so quick after all. However, we did manage to cover nearly all the requisite holiday-related relative visitations in one sixty-hour and eight-hundred-mile whirlwind tour, and now we're back home, to the great relief of one seriously neurotic dog. A few more hours, and she should get over her abandonment issues well enough to stop — er, dogging Karen's footsteps and trying to climb into her lap every time she sits down.

Eldest Son reports that for the first 24 hours after we left, the dog just sat by the front door, staring out the sidelight window and whining softly. Sometime in the second 24 hours, she got our bedroom door open, curled up on Karen's side of the bed, and refused to move.

There's good reason why we named the mutt "Shadow." There are times, and this is one of them, when Karen can't seem to turn around without tripping over the dog. Personally, I find it hilarious.

But then, I'm not the one with a needy neurotic Labrador trying to climb into my lap every time I sit down.

As for the 12/19/08 Friday Challenge, I have to go along with the general tenor of the comments. Passinthrough wrote a good heartfelt rant, Torainfor wrote a real knockout of a story, and Henry — well, we'll get back to him in a minute. Choosing between Torainfor's and Henry's entries was quite difficult, and Karen kept coming up with all sorts of creative ways to split the difference and declare them both winners.

Myself, I really don't see that much similarity between Torainfor's story and Clarke's "The Star", except for a very slight similarity in the twist at the end. If I was still a member of SFWA I'd probably get drummed out for saying this, but I found Rain's story far more entertaining than Clarke's, perhaps because I've had family trips like this one — well, except for that getting stranded three thousand years in the past part.

I don't know if this story is sellable. Most SF editors tend to shy away from seasonal stories in general and anything that might be interpreted as being overtly Christian in particular, but if it was my story, I certainly would be trying to get it published. I think it's a very good candidate for a professional sale and I'm hard pressed to think of any obvious way to improve on it.


But in the end I'm not picking a story to publish, I'm picking a Friday Challenge winner, and in the final cut of the cards, I'm afraid that my personal prejudices won out. In recognition of those four hideous years I spent working in retail sales during the Christmas season, and in fond memory of life back in the days when you could still post a sign in your computer store that read:
And their mothers would only sniff disdainfully at you, and not consider filing a lawsuit against the store and the mall because your harsh words bruised their little yard-ape's self-esteem, I have to go with Henry's entry. So, Henry —

Oh, you know the drill.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Multi-Generation Con

Back in the comments on "St. Ponzi and The Parable of The Cellphones", Athor Pel asked a few of my favorite questions:
I've been pondering some questions lately.

Why are we willing to pay taxes?

1) that we didn't vote into existence

2) to a government that we didn't have any say in creating originally

It was all in place before we were born.

Why should we play the game?
These are some of my favorite questions, and not because I'm advocating a tax revolt — although I do believe that if we did not have automatic income tax withholding, and if all gainfully employed Americans therefore had to write a check to the government quarterly, as the gainfully self-employed do, then we would have one very angry tax revolt in very hot progress in very short order —

No, these questions fascinate me because of one of the hoary old mainstays of hard science fiction: the generation ship.

The idea, if you're not familiar with it, goes like this. Since we know that the speed of light in a vacuum, c, is not just the law, it's the absolute limit, and we know that hyperdrive, warp drive, jump drive, and all the other variously named ways of getting beyond c are merely convenient fictional gimmicks with no basis in reality, the other obvious way for humans to cross the vast interstellar distances is by building ships so big they're self-contained ecologies, and then launching them out with the assumption that the crew will breed, and it will be their many-generations-removed descendants who will actually arrive at wherever it is that the ship is going.

Heinlein got a lot of mileage out of this idea. I grew up on his Starship Magellan juveniles and loved 'em. The problem came when I, as an adult writer, started looking at the idea afresh with the intention of using it in a story, and I started running into the same sorts of questions that Athor Pel posed.

What is a generation ship? Pared down to its nub, it's a closed, utopian society, on a mission to some goal that was defined long before the current occupants were born. So what's the problem?

The problem is that in all my readings of history, I have been unable to find a single example of a closed, utopian society that lasted more than five generations — and that's using a very lax definition of "utopian." For example, the Soviet Union was supposed to be a utopian society, and yet even the Soviet Union, with all its formidable power, didn't make it five generations.

Five generations seems to be the outside limit. Three generations is when things start falling apart. The founders of the utopia usually manage okay, if they're not complete blithering idiots (see, "The Great Hippie Commune Disaster," 1968) and the founders can usually do a decent job of indoctrinating most of their children and controlling the few nonconformists. But by the time the grandchildren of the founders come along a lot more people are asking Athor's questions, and by the time the great-grandchildren reach adulthood the pressure to either radically change the terms of the mission or else to just tear the whole thing down and start over become nearly irresistible.

This does not bode well for the prospects of a successful generation ship on its way to Proximi Centauri.

Which led to a different line of thought: if you have a ship so large it's a self-contained ecology, why bother leaving Sol system at all? It's not like there's a shortage of room here. Why not just park the thing, say, three months ahead or behind of Earth's position in solar orbit, and con the poor buggers on-board into thinking they're on a centuries-long multi-generational voyage to Farfnargle IV? Or if you want to get really tricky, just shoot it into a long orbit out to the Kuiper Belt and back, so that the "colonists" think they're arriving on Epison Whachacallit when all they're doing is finally returning to Earth?

So that's the root idea. Now: where's the story in this?

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 12/26/08

Not surprisingly, it was a lean week for entries in the 12/19/08 Friday Challenge. As of the deadline we have three contestants.

Henry, "Joy to the World - A Christmas Retail Rant"

Passinthrough, "A Christmas Rant"

Torainfor, "Weekly Challenge: Christmas Rant"

As always, even if you didn't submit an entry you're invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorites, with the winner to be announced Sunday evening (planned), or possibly Monday (probable).

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge: as certainly as night follows day, taxes follow money, or attorneys follow ambulances, the appropriate follow-up to a Christmas-themed challenge can only be a New Year's Eve-themed challenge. That's what we're looking for this week: your best — or most embarassing, your choice — true, semi-true, or entirely made-up story about your most unforgettable New Year's Eve ever.

Only, to make this more of a challenge, I want you to tell the story in either second- or third-person, as if you were (or are) an outside party observing yourself during the course of the events in question.

As always, we're playing by the ever-changing rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind Door #2. The deadline for this challenge is midnight Central time, Thursday, January 1, 2009, which, as many of you have no doubt already noticed, is 24 hours after the next New Year's Eve.

So if you don't have any unforgettable New Year's Eve memories already in stock, relax. There's still plenty of time to make entirely new ones!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas with the Folks

This column first appeared on 22 December 2004. Traditions must start somewhere, so rerunning this one has become part of my Christmas tradition. My best wishes to you and yours, and see you on Friday.

For all of my life, Christmas has meant going back home to visit the folks. Great-Grandmother Grace was the matriarch of a large family: when my father got together with his brothers and sisters and all their children — and later, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren — the scene of the disturbance was always a glorious tumult of cousins, nieces, nephews, babies, laughter, noise, music, food, shredded wrapping paper strewn absolutely everywhere, and box upon box of chocolate-covered cherries.

This year, it will be different. Grandma Grace died long ago, of course. Even my father died years ago. Last year we buried the last of his siblings, and a month later, we buried the first of mine. Funerals have long since overtaken weddings in my family, and those who remain of my cousins and brothers are scattered far and wide across the continent. We buried one cousin's daughter last summer — car accident, far too young — and it's only through the grace of God and the vigilance of an overworked guardian angel that my sister's son, the hard-drinking Harley rider, has managed to hold his position at one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel floating in a puddle of 90-weight gear oil.

On my in-law's side, the story is much the same. Last spring we buried my wife's mother, a fine lady who lived for her children and cooked like a genius, and now the nuclear family that she glued together with pasta and marinara sauce is slowly drifting apart. Brothers and sisters have children; children have jobs and fiancés; what once was a close-knit family is slowly coming apart at the seams, unraveled by the gentle but persistent tugging of competing commitments and obligations. So this year, things will be different. This year we are not going anywhere to visit anyone.

This year, we are the folks that children are coming home to visit.

I am not ready to be this old. I'm not ready to become part of the Parents generation, as if I had a choice. But one of my daughters lives half a continent away and can't get the time off work to make the trip home for the holidays. Another will be coming home for a few days and may bring her fiancé, but then they'll probably leave to spend a few days with his family. The third will be staying at the house a bit longer, but she's really planning to spend most of her vacation hanging out with her high school friends.

We're lucky. We still have The Kid: the 9-year-old late-life surprise who keeps us young and reminds his older sisters that they're not quite ready to start families of their own, yet. So we'll haul out the camcorder, watch him tear into the presents, and record every happy shriek and bit of shredded wrapping paper for posterity.

For posterity?

Yes, exactly. Among other things, my father was a dedicated amateur photographer. I have very few pictures of him, because he was always the one behind the camera. For more than twenty years he lugged his Bell & Howell 8mm movie camera — and a blinding bank of photoflood lights — to all of Great-Grandma's Christmas riots, and got everything he could down on tiny 3-minute spools of Kodak film. Sometime in the early 1970s he got the urge to edit these spools together into one epic production, compressing twenty-plus years of family Christmasses into one half-hour of grainy footage.

A few years ago I transferred that film to video and dubbed in a soundtrack — Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong and the like — then mailed copies to my surviving cousins and siblings. I kept a copy for myself, of course.

Ergo, this Christmas Eve, my wife and I will share presents, eggnog, and warmest wishes with our children. We'll hug the older ones goodbye and remind them to drive carefully as they head out to resume the social lives they've graciously put on-hold in order to spend a few hours with us. We'll open a present or two with The Kid, and put him to bed.

Then we'll crack a bottle of Merlot, put Dad's Christmas movie into the VCR, and spend half an hour with a family that exists now only in memory and on faded Kodacolor. We'll drink a toast or two to those who have left us far too soon: Louise. Carlone. Julie. Myrtle. Tom. Ray. Arnold. Bucky. Frances.

And then, at midnight, we will drink a toast in celebration, remembering that joy and grief come together in an inseparable package, that life does not last forever but love does, and that this is the night that the God we believe in — who so loved this little world He made for us that He took our mortal form upon Himself — this is the night that Christ, our saviour, was born to live among us, to share our lives, and to tell us that, while time may separate us from those we love, we won't be separated forever.

And you know, when you get down to it, it is a wonderful life.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Parents and Children

BoysMom poses an interesting question:
Do I have to wait until my parents can't read anymore to try to get published using stuff like that, or is it okay to not tell them I got something published? It seems kind of dishonest, but if they ever recognized anything as being related to them it'll make all the previous fights look like nothing, and if they know it exists they'll search it out.

How do people handle that? I can so see it getting me disowned, which would really break the boys' hearts.
You've asked one of those great questions for which there is no easy and obvious answer. Your parents love you; they want to be proud of your writing. (Although that bit about their disowning you and cutting off contact with their grandsons is a little creepy. Do they threaten this sort of thing often, or is this merely a rhetorical flourish on your part?)

There is a belief commonly held by writers with few friends and pathological family relations that they answer to some higher calling and have an absolute commitment to write naught but The Truth, however they happen to be perceiving it today and no matter whose toes get stomped on in the process. I'm generally of the opinion that any writer who sticks to this ideal with absolutely no regard for the feelings of his or her family members and friends is suffering from a surfeit of hubris, at least. It really isn't that hard to disguise the source of your ideas and dialog, and in fact, sometimes it's kind of fun, to write someone you know into a story and yet so disguise them that they never recognize themselves. Better yet, as a writer, using someone you know as a template for a character can force you to stretch, to try to develop some sympathy for or at least some understanding of a person who could hold such a contrary opinion that you're eager to use your writing to shoot it full of holes.

Still, there is some kind of threshold of adulthood implicit in this question. It's sort of like the first time you tell a dirty joke in a parent's presence. Eventually you're going to have to work up the nerve to say something your mother might find offensive, or else resign yourself to always having that tiny image of your mother perched on your shoulder, second-guessing and criticizing every word you write.

The good news is, in purely practical terms, your parents will be terribly proud of the first thing you publish, and buy six copies to show all their friends. Same with the second thing. Somewhere between the third and sixth thing you publish, though, they'll start to get a little jaded, and they'll buy a copy, but they won't read it. And then, if you keep at it, somewhere along about the sixth to twelfth thing you publish...

The bad news is, sooner or later, your children will express a desire to read something you've written, and then you're really in trouble. For my money the embarrassment of having a parent read a questionable story is nowhere near as terrifying and writer's block-inducing as having one of your children read one of those old stories that you wrote back when you were young and full of yourself — say, one of those near-porn pieces you had published in Easyriders back in the 1980s.

I deal with this one every day. One of my daughters subscribes to this blog; another reads it on a fairly regular basis. Because I know that they do this, there are topics I will never broach here and stories I will never tell, no matter how germane. And rather than explain further, I will take this opportunity to redirect your attention to this post from last summer, which discusses the pathological relationship between mother and daughter writers Alice and Rebecca Walker.

That's the worst part of having a heedless devotion to The Painful Truth. Someday, one of your children might feel it's only fair to write The Painful Truth about you.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 12/19/08

illo: Greetings from Hoth!

Well, it's been a fun week here on Hoth! We're still having trouble adapting the landspeeders to the cold, and sadly, the Gungans, those stalwart heroes of the rebellion, being amphibians who never evolved a hibernation instinct, all froze to death in the first 48 hours. But the med-bots assure us that Senator Jar-Jar Binks is perfectly preserved, and when this war is over he should make an excellent full-body mount in the Coruscant Museum of Unnatural History.

Meanwhile, closer to home, we have some good news to report. Those of you who've shared our worries about when our late bloomer might start to develop his powers will be happy to learn that in the past week, The Kid has demonstrated an unfailing, and dare we say it, superhuman ability to miss the schoolbus whenever the wind chill dips below zero! We're not sure exactly how he's going to use this newfound power to fight crime and/or evil, but we consider this a promising sign and are sure the details will become clearer as we work on it.

Over on the work front, in the meantime, things are proceeding about as expected. Thanks to a strong last-minute kick I was able to meet all my deadlines and get all my big projects for the year wrapped up with a few days to spare, which earned me the right to jump in and pick up the slack on someone else's big project that was behind schedule. At the last minute it became apparent that the project still wasn't going to be ready on-time, though, even with all the galley personnel rowing at top speed, and so the decision was handed down from on-high to slip the schedule by a month. But since we managed to finish out the year with no one going postal or in the cardiac ICU for a change, we were all rewarded with guaranteed job security next year, expressed in the form of cancelling the three open job reqs in our group. Hooray! Less competition!

And with that said: it's time to get back to talking about the Friday Challenge.

I'm going to depart from the usual procedure this week and start by announcing the 12/19/08 Friday Challenge first, because — well, heck, because it's Sunday already, so you may as well get a few minutes head start less-late start on it. This week we're looking for your best Pre-Christmas rant. Not about Christmas, no; I want you to write about the ordeal before Christmas. Write about shopping, write about finding the perfect tree, write about that one insipid Christmas song that's going to drive you crazy if you hear it one more time. (My choice would be "Last Christmas" by George Michael.) If that doesn't inspire any visions of terpsichorean sugar plums performing Busby Berkeley routines in your head, then write your nomination for the second-worst Christmas movie of all time. (Jingle All The Way having already secured the uncontestable title of The Worst Christmas Movie Ever, Hands-Down.)

As always, we're playing by the so-called rules for the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind Door #2. This week the deadline will be sometime on Friday morning, December 26th, as I certainly expect Thursday the 25th to be full beyond capacity.

Now, getting caught up on the backlog, we turn to the 11/21/08 Friday Challenge, which as you might remember was to write something with a Thanksgiving theme. The entries were:

Jamsco, "Giving Thanks" — A good piece, well-written. But as you yourself point out, it is also a rewrite of last year's piece, and as such it's not fair to put it in competition against fresh work.

Kremben, untitled — This one, to be honest, creeped me out a little, as I thought for a moment that Bane had risen again. Very... disturbing.

Waterboy, "It Ain't Me" — I loved this one. It cracked me up. What's more truly, authentically, the genuine American Thanksgiving Day experience than OD'ing on turkey and then dozing off in front of the TV while watching an NFL game? Especially the hapless Lions?

Passinthrough, "Charlie" — As always, a charming snapshot of life. You consistently produce these wonderful, succinct images. It wouldn't hurt you to stretch out and go longer, as you have this great, droll, Bud Luckey sort of story-telling style. Much as it might go against your grain, I'd definitely like to see you tackle something longer.

Snowdog, "A Thanksgiving Carol" — Another truly weird one. Are you sure you and Vidad aren't the same person?

Rainwrites, "Thanksgiving" — A very good, very clever story, with an interesting role-reversal twist. I wouldn't have thought there was a new and strongly SF story to get out of this topic, but you proved that there is. I think that with one more pass for polishing, this one would be publishable in the pro or semi-pro market.

So after discussing the entries, we finally agreed that Rain is the winner. Rain, come on down and claim your prize.

Update, 5 p.m.: as for the 12/12/08 Friday Challenge, which as you no doubt remember was to jump forward 20 years in time and describe life with The Car of the Future, we've had a remarkable response. The entrants are:

BoysMom, untitled

Ben-El, "Just Smurfy"

WaterBoy, "Night Shift," Part One | Part Two

Passinthrough, untitled

Rigel Kent, "Outlaw Motorists Agency," Part One | Part Two

And finally, KTown, the one Luddite here who resolutely refuses to get his own blog, has emailed in, "Frank vs. The Future"

But wait, there's more! In some kind of very strange demonstration of serendipity and synchronicity, the notorious infamous well-known blogger Iowahawk wrote this piece on his blog site, which is not in contention for the prize but definitely well worth reading. What makes this trebly odd, though, is that that bizarre electroeconobox pictured in his post is a "Citicar," which it turns out was designed by the father of Chris Muir, the fellow who writes and draws Day by Day. Talk about a small, nay, claustrophobic world.

Weird stuff, Maynard.

Update, 10 p.m.: after convening the entire Rampant Loon editorial staff, we had a really lovely dinner, and then over milk and cookies got down to the serious business of stuffing our faces with even more freshly baked Christmas cookies. Oh yeah, we read and traded comments on the entries, too.

KTown: there are some great ideas here and some great lines of dialog, but this really reads more like the script for a story than the actual story itself. It's a great framework, and in another week it might have won, but this time around the lack of description and action worked against it. I'd love to see this one fleshed-out into a proper story, or alternately, developed into a proper script and a short film. But as it stands right now, it's neither fish nor fowl.

Passinthrough: another delightful piece of mood and tone, but the same comments as above still apply. Don't be afraid to stretch out and write something longer.

BoysMom: as with Passinthrough's entry, I really like the mood, and there is a really cool idea lurking in here. But to be a story, it needs to be developed further; there needs to be at least one character. Maybe instead of talking about the grandparents driving up to visit, tell us the story of their visit, leading into the conflict between their naive "if you haven't done anything wrong you don't have anything to worry about" belief versus the narrator's somewhat more sanguine "you never know what the software will deem suspicious" theory. You don't have to resolve this conflict, or even bring it fully onstage. You can get a lot of mileage out of the tension between parent and child, and the One Thing that stands between them that they both know they can't talk about without arguing. But to be a story, you need to show us this tension (or something equally significant), not merely tell us about it.

Wow. I think my comments may be almost as long as your original entry. You must be doing something right, to get this much response out of me.

Ben-El: this is the one we kept reading at each other, with everyone trying to do their best PAL 900 voice. I would love to hear Snowdog make an audio performance version of this one — there's no way to sell it anywhere or make any money off it, but I'd love to hear it all the same. But in the end, there can be only one, so this one didn't make the cut. Sorry.

WaterBoy: this was my pick. A good story all the way through, from front to back, and this week's clear winner on the grounds of being closest to publishable. The thought of the president's daughter being stark naked as a political protest — well, I was thinking of Jenna Bush, of course, but then someone said, "Chelsea," and we all went "GAAAAAH!", and someone else said, "Caroline Kennedy," and we all began screaming and wailing, so perhaps you need to spend a few more lines making it clear that this would be a photogenic protest, and not one of those ghastly Code Pink "Breasts Not Bombs" horrorshows. But I was all set to declare this one the winner —

Except that once Rigel posted his Part Two, the panel split. Rigel's entry was not nearly as polished, but it definitely scored big on the creepy and paranoid elements. So in the end...

In the end, we decided we were never going to get to the cheesecake if we kept arguing about the relative merits of WaterBoy and Rigel's entries, so we agreed to call it a split decision and move on. So I guess, in the end, there can be only one, except when there are two. Rigel and WaterBoy, come on down and claim your prizes!

Monday, December 15, 2008

St. Ponzi and The Parable of The Cellphones

A sudden weather change has dumped four inches of fresh global warming on us and dropped the air temperature to -7° F this morning, with a wind-chill of -25° F, so given that Mr. Ponzi's name has been much in the news lately — and that in any case I've got to cut things short and go dig out the driveway — this seemed like an opportune time to re-run this column from a few years ago. Enjoy.

The senior executive called everyone into an all-employee meeting. "We appreciate the long hours you've been putting in," the executive said, "and we realize how long it's been since most of you have had a real raise. But the projected cashflow for 2004 is still pretty tight, so we've had to come up with an alternate plan. Effective immediately, we're giving each of you a new grant of stock options, and free and unlimited company cellphones!"

This was exciting news. Nobody in the room really believed their stock options would ever be worth anything — that was about on par with telling them, "Effective immediately, we're buying each of you 3 quick-picks for this weekend's PowerBall" — but a free cell phone: now that was a tangible! That was something the employees could literally hold in their hands; that was something they could actually use. This was a way in which the company's largess could actually have a direct and positive impact on each employee's personal monthly budget.

So by and large, the employees took the free cellphones. Those who already had their own cellphones dropped their plans, with some grumbling about being unable to transfer their existing phone numbers or caller lists to the new company accounts. Those who'd never before had a cellphone suddenly felt an urgent need to get one. And a few employees even went so far as to cancel their home land lines, in expectation that the free company cellphones would handle all their telephone needs.

A year and a restructuring later, the company called everyone into yet another all-employee meeting. "We hate to do this to you," the senior executive who'd replaced the previous senior executive said, "but 2004 turned out to be even tougher than projected. So we've been looking at ways in which to tighten our belts and cut unnecessary expenses, and we've come to the conclusion that the company simply cannot afford to provide free cellphones for everyone any longer. Effective immediately, those of you who can prove that you absolutely need a company phone will be allowed to keep yours, but as for the rest of you, you have a choice: either give up your company cellphone, or start paying for it yourself."

Oh, the wailing and gnashing of teeth! The anger! The protests! Those who'd had their own cellphones a year before just grumbled a little more and changed accounts again, and those who couldn't afford it and couldn't prove a need simply went without and grumbled later, in private. But strangely enough, it was the employees who'd never before had a cellphone, and who'd since become completely dependent on their "free" phones, who complained the longest and loudest before finally, grudgingly, agreeing to start paying for it themselves.

Or maybe it wasn't so strange after all...

After sex, the two most powerful human motivators are the fear of loss and the desire for gain. (Before sex, it's the desire for sex.) Of the two, fear of loss is usually the stronger, which is why more people have life insurance policies than investment management plans.

Now, the secret of being really successful in sales — especially if you're selling something people don't actually want or need — is to find some way to tie your pitch into one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and especially into that peculiar combination of greed, envy, and pride that manifests itself as the fear of loss, or more precisely, the fear of missing out on an opportunity to be greedy. In its crudest form, this is why so many ads blare:
A slightly more sophisticated approach is to find a way to twist the customer's desire for gain until it becomes the fear of loss. A good example of this is what is called "The Puppy Dog Close." In it's archetypal form, the salesman in the pet shop tells the reluctant customer:
"Yes, I understand that a puppy is a lot of responsibility, and you're not quite sure that you're ready to make the commitment required to own an AKC-registered Bishon-Poupon. So tell you what: why don't you take advantage of our free in-home trial offer? Take little Fluffy here home for just 24 hours, if it doesn't work out, you can bring her right back and we'll refund your money, no questions asked."
The secret to this technique, of course, is that very few people ever bring the puppy back, because by the time 24 hours have passed a sense of pride of ownership has emerged and the idea of "we're getting a puppy" has been replaced by, "we're losing our puppy if we take her back." The fear of loss replaces the desire for gain, the little mutt stays, and goodbye, carpets.

By the way, this technique also works very well if you want to move a lot of cellphones.

At higher levels of sophistication, expert salespeople begin finding ways to combine greed, envy, pride, lust, and sloth into new and powerful synergisms. For example, a true master of the technique was Charles K. Ponzi, who in December of 1919 claimed to have found a way to play the international postal exchange rates in order to generate enormous cash returns in very short amounts of time. Investors in Ponzi's business, The Securities Exchange Company, purchased, for $1,000 apiece, coupons that were redeemable for $1,500 in 90 days time.

According to Ponzi, the invested money was used to fund his postal exchange activities, and whatever he was doing, it certainly seemed to be working. All of his original investors were paid off in full in 45 days, and the resulting good press and word-of-mouth brought first hundreds, then thousands of people flocking to put their money into Ponzi's company, even as many financial experts declared that the business made absolutely no sense and couldn't possibly be profitable in the long run. In this case, pride, greed, envy, and sloth were combined with incredible potency to produce the fear of looking like a schmuck for missing out on the deal of the century, and normal investor caution was thrown to the wind. In a matter of six months Charles Ponzi went from having to borrow $200 to buy office furniture to having reported assets in excess of 12 million (1920) dollars.

What a pity, then, that it was all a fraud. There was no postal exchange business; no money being held in individual investor accounts; capital was being redistributed and called income. The early investors were simply being paid off with the cash put in by later investors, and the money left over after that was dumped directly into Mr. Ponzi's personal bank account, to support his lavish and flamboyant spending habits. The Securities Exchange Company was just one monumental pyramid of borrowings from Peters to pay off Pauls, and in July of 1920, Ponzi began running out of Peters.

By the end of July the company had imploded like a 1999 dot-com, and by the middle of August Ponzi was sitting in a jail cell, "for his own protection," while 10,000 irate investors were trying to find out what had happened to their money and federal and state authorities were racing to see who could prosecute him first. Ponzi wound up serving a lengthy federal prison term, after which he spent several years bouncing around state courts and prison systems before finally being deported. He died in poverty in Brazil in 1949, but his name lives on, in what has since become the proper name for a particular type of pyramid investment fraud that is aggressively prosecuted wherever it is found: The Ponzi Scheme.

Now by this point you're no doubt wondering what all this has to do with cellphones. Actually my real topic is Social Security, and my points are three-fold:

  1. The Social Security system operates exactly like a classic Ponzi scheme. The money being put in by those "investing" in Social Security today is being used to pay off those who "invested" in earlier years, in amounts out of all proportion to what the earlier investors actually paid in and any reasonable rate of return. There are no individual investor accounts; capital is being redistributed and called income; and whatever cash is left over from daily operations is dumped directly into the general fund, to support the federal government's lavish and flamboyant spending habits.
  2. Unlike Charles Ponzi, the Social Security Administration has one great advantage: it can force people to join the scheme, literally at gun-point if need be. When Social Security was first created in 1935 it was sold to the taxpayers as being just a final safety net for those who really needed it and had nowhere else to turn. The system was expanded in 1939, and again several more times in the 1950s and 1960s, each time promising more and better returns to its "investors" while forcing ever-larger numbers of workers to give up their existing private pension plans and join the system, thus expanding the base of the pyramid and preserving the illusion of stability for a little while longer.
  3. As the idea of privatization — or more accurately, of allowing people the option of not investing a small percentage of their income in the pyramid scheme — becomes a topic of public discussion, those who protest the loudest against it seem to be those who would never have thought they needed a retirement plan in the first place, if the government hadn't presented them with this wonderful "free" offer. But having taken the cellphone home and become dependent on it, they cannot imagine living without it, and any suggestion that the system is fundamentally unsustainable is met with a response straight out of the limbic system:
    "The government has made a commitment! It must honor that commitment! If that means they have to raise taxes, then so be it! Raise the taxes!"

In short, the creation of a "free" benefit has created a dependency; anything that threatens to disturb this dependency engenders the fear of loss in its most potent form; and it is at this point that a rational discussion of the problems inherent in the system becomes very, very, difficult.

Still, a rational discussion is vitally necessary. The Social Security system is at heart a Ponzi scheme, which can only remain solvent by either bringing more investors into the system, reducing the payout to those cashing out, or demanding more money from each individual currently paying in. The Baby Boomer generation is fast approaching retirement age, meaning the system has enormous liabilities that it must shortly begin paying out — or to maintain the metaphor, enormous numbers of investors who will shortly begin trying to redeem their Ponzi coupons.

Unfortunately, we seem to have reached a natural limit on the further expansion of the base of the pyramid. Our country simply is not adding new taxpayers to the population as rapidly as it did back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the first wave of Baby Boomers graduated and went to work. Short of annexing Mexico and Canada, it seems unlikely we will ever see those sorts of growth rates in the taxpayer population again.

So what is the solution? Honestly, I don't know. But do I know that we must find one, and I do know that before anyone starts thundering on again about sacred commitments and raising taxes and all that rot, they'd better consider this: America is in the midst of a profound demographic change. Those new taxpayers that we are adding to the rolls are far more likely than in decades past to be black, brown, Hispanic, or Asian. As the incomes and populations of the former minority groups grow, so will their political clout, and it is highly debatable whether the politicians of America in the year 2025 will feel any obligation to honor the commitments made by Euro-Americans, to Euro-Americans, some 50 years before their own grandparents even entered this country.

That's the choice we face. Either we fix Social Security now, or we wait and have it fixed for us, by the children of the same people who staff our nursing homes, mow our lawns, and serve our fast food. And personally, I can't imagine that latter choice turning out in any way that any but the most self-loathing of Baby Boomer Euro-Americans might consider to be "good."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Guest Column
Michael Shaara: Wishing for "The Killer Aliens"

Old friend Guy Stewart regularly blogs at Possibly Irritating Essays: Thoughts on Christianity, faith, science fiction and writing. Awhile back I gave him an unusual book and a challenge. Herewith, the result.

Michael Shaara: Wishing for The Killer Aliens
by Guy Stewart

He never won any awards with us. No Hugo, no Nebula (oh, that’s right, he’d stopped writing SF by 1966 and gone on to pen seventy stories for people who read those silly magazines like Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Playboy, and The Saturday Evening Post), no Locus Poll (oops, those didn’t start until 1971, and Shaara was long gone by then); he left us almost nothing to remind us that we’d had a great writer doing his apprenticeship among us, the SF community. Somewhere around 1954 he wrote a story that Galaxy, F&SF, and Astounding rejected out of hand after publishing seven other stories of his; Shaara himself thought, “…this may be the best I’ve ever done.” But we didn’t want it. Published finally, grudgingly, in Fantastic Universe in 1957, Shaara had already started moving toward people who enjoyed what he was writing.

That story, “Death of a Hunter”, wasn’t the best he could do. Twenty years later, the world saw the publication of his Civil War novel, The Killer Angels. An intimate novel of the Battle of Gettysburg in the style of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Angels became his best. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the award came as a stunning surprise because the book had been a commercial flop — and then went on to became a full-length feature film after his death in 1988, and has been required reading for more military organizations than you can shake a stick at ever since.

The SF world lost Michael Shaara because in part, the editor at Galaxy thought his readers wouldn’t like “Death of a Hunter”. They wouldn’t like it because he thought it was, “too serious, too gloomy.” Of course, the SF of the time tended toward the positive salvation of humanity through the application of technology. Shaara’s work didn’t flow in that vein — it wasn’t about glittering machines and conquering the planets, the stars, and the galaxies. His work was about people and their responses to the forces in their lives. That phase of popular SF didn’t arrive for another twenty years.

Admittedly, Shaara also wrote better after 20 years of practice. Compare these two descriptions of the alien:
“It was a great black lump on a platform. The platform had legs, and the thing was plodding methodically upon a path which would bring it past him. It had come down from the rise and was rounding the gorge when Dylan saw it. It did not see him. If he had not ducked quickly and brought up his gun, the monkey would not have seen him either, but there was no time for regret. The monkey was several yards to the right of the lump on the platform when he heard it start running; he had to look up this time, and saw it leaping toward him over the snow.”

(p. 32, “Soldier Boy”, 1954)
“To be alien and alone among white lords and glittering machines, uprooted by brute force and threat of death from the familiar earth of what he did not even know was Africa, to be shipped in the black stinking darkness across an ocean he had not dreamed existed, forced then to work on alien soil, strange beyond belief, by men with guns whose words he could not even comprehend. What could the black man know of what was happening? Chamberlain tried to imagine it. He had seen ignorance, but this was more than that. What could this man know of borders and state’s rights and the Constitution and Dred Scott? What…”

(p. 180, The Killer Angels, 1974)

Both passages are one hundred and eleven words long, but it is clear that Shaara had come into his own by the time he wrote Angels. The prose vibrates like a quartet’s string bass played in an intimate curtained chamber, while “Soldier Boy” twangs like a banjo in a clapboard dance hall.

Is there anything we could have done to keep him with us — perhaps allowing the growth of an early Mary Doria Russel, or Stanislaw Lem? Unlikely. SF hadn’t matured enough by then to admit to literary aspirations. Shaara himself alludes to this in the afterword of Soldier Boy, the only collection of his science fiction ever printed. He says, “Very little I wrote has ever moved me so much as being with Neilson when he killed those two in the mountains. I felt for the first time in my writing life, that maybe I was growing up, and maybe I’d done something truly worth doing…”

Fifty-eight years later, Shaara’s work has stood the test of time, as The Killer Angels enjoys consistent sales and continues to illuminate one of the bloodiest battles in American history. As good as it is, though, I cannot help but wonder what Michael Shaara might have given the SF community, had we encouraged him to explore the darker reaches of humanity’s battle with technology.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Friday Challenge: 12/12/08

Just in time to celebrate Turkmenistan Neutrality Day, the Friday Challenge returns from a somewhat longer than planned holiday break and gets back to work. For, while much as I admire the accomplishments of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow, there is a backlog that has piled up, and —

And I can't keep a straight face any longer. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow! That's almost as good as my personal hero, Dr. Wubbo Ockels.

This is what makes it so hard to write fiction. Write a name like this into a novel, and some editor in New York is sure to say, "You must be kidding. Change it."


Right. Getting back to the 11/21/08 Friday Challenge, the contestants are:

Jamsco - "Giving Thanks"

Kremben - untitled

Waterboy - "It Ain't Me"

Passinthrough - "Charlie"

Snowdog - "A Thanksgiving Carol"

Rainwrites - "Thanksgiving"

Rain, who blogs at Rain Writes, is a newcomer who's arrived here by way of an interview with Theo Beale on Where the Map Ends, a site of which I was completely unaware until Rain mentioned it. Therefore, while some of you may be tempted to proclaim her Queen of the Snowdogs for submitting an entry five days after the deadline, I'll ask you to go easy on her. This time.

Oh, and someone explain "snowdogging" to her, would you?

Anyway, those are our contestants this week. As always, I invite you to read, comment on, and vote for your favorites, and the winner will be announced Sunday evening.

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge: while I have a lot of interesting ideas in the queue, I'm going to have to go with this one, which is, as they say, ripped from the headlines. Watching the pie-fight this week over the proposed General Motors bailout — which, honestly, amounts to a nationalization of the automobile manufacturing industry that any Third World tinpot dictatorship would be proud to claim — as the past and current owner of many fine (koff! koff!) British Leyland automobiles, I can't help but think, "Well, that's always worked before." And then my mind drifted back even further, to the founding history of Volkswagen, which if you're not familiar with it, provides both fascinating reading and even more disturbing parallels, and from that input, sprang this idea:
It's 20 or so years in the future. The government takeover of the auto industry has long since been complete, and you are now the proud driver of a brand new Cadillac "Euphoria," which is the penultimate product of 20 years of Congressionally-mandated design initiatives. (In the future, all cars are Cadillacs. That way no one has to suffer from the stigma of being seen driving a Chevy.) It's an advanced-technology hybrid that runs on soybean biodiesel and recycled deep-fryer grease and gets ten miles on a single McDonald's Happy Meal, and it comes complete with a dashboard breathalyzer (required to unlock the steering wheel), no ashtray, an automatic endangered-species warning and collision avoidance system, and the incredibly intrusive OnStar*2, which combines audio and video surveillance and can't be turned off. You don't actually own this car; you're merely leasing it from the government, as everyone does, and its most interesting feature is GPSX, which not only tells you your location, it also constantly reports your location, speed, and direction to the appropriate government agencies...

That's all I've got for now. Now it's your turn to put on your tinfoil hats, turn your paranoia dials up to maximum, and tell us all a little bit about what it's like to live and move about in the Car of Your Nightmares Dreams.

As always, we're playing by the so-called rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind Door #2. The finish line for this challenge is midnight, Thursday, December 18

Happy Motoring!

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Ben-El asks:
Have you ever written on why the bug fixes in the software industry? I assume they either did not exist at all, or were not so prevalent before the advent of the internet. [...] I know console gaming has avoided this thus far, preferring to delay and test rigorously over a long period until it is as near flawless as a computer game after the last patch and the company has moved on. Although I suspect as soon as some major game comes out with a major unforeseen flaw, Microsoft et al. will allow them to use X-Box Live to correct it, opening the floodgates.

As a libertarian I am curious if some law(s) is at the root of it. Or is it just a culture thing?

I assume by now you're all familiar with the story of The Very First Computer Bug:

an unfortunate moth that met its maker while caught in the relays of the Harvard Mark II. It's a great creation myth, but it's just not true. Aircraft mechanics and radar engineers referred to bugs in their equipment during World War II, mechanical engineers talked about bugs in systems in the 1920s and 1930s, and even Thomas Edison wrote about getting the bugs out of a new invention back in the 1870s. I suspect the term has its true origins back in the early industrial age, and originally had some agricultural or wool-processing connotation, but whatever the real story is, we'll never know now.

As to why bugs seem to be increasing lately: I think it's really more a matter of perception, caused by a combination of growing exposure and increased complexity. I know for a fact that back in the days of punchcards and COBOL, programs had bugs — sometimes stunningly stupid and staggeringly show-stopping bugs — but since most programs back then were pretty close to hand-rolled one-of-a-kind customized applications, few people outside of the accounting and data processing departments knew about them. I also know that back in the days of teletypes and flowcharting templates programs still had bugs, because I wrote quite a few myself. But in those ancient days it was still possible for a programmer to sit down with a printout of the source code, a pencil, and a can of Dr. Pepper, and work through his program line by line until he reached that "Eureka!" moment. (Or more likely, that, "Omigod, I can't believe I did something that stupid," moment.)

I once worked with a guy whose mantra was, "If you can't fit your program into four thousand bytes, you don't know what you're trying to do." He was serious, too. I wonder how he's adapted to today's million-line programs? I suspect he's retired.

The great transition happened in the early 1980s, with the microcomputer revolution. In the span of less than five years computers went from being those big mysterious things in the data center that only the Lords of Cobol were allowed to approach, to being the noisy things on everybody's desk that still didn't work quite as well as their old Selectrics and calculators, but what the heck, the boss said they had to use them anyway. (You'd be amazed at how many people back in those days kept a typewriter and a printing calculator stashed away somewhere, for when they really had to get work done in a hurry.) Concurrently, software went from being something that the resident programmer/analysts had cobbled together, and that they'd fix overnight if you found something wrong, asked them nicely, and promised them cookies, to being something that you bought. On a diskette. Very often in a Ziploc bag, and accompanied by a two-pound manual in a 3-ring vinyl binder.

Packaging was very primitive in those days. Technical support, nearly nonexistent. Quality testing? Who the heck do you think we are, IBM? We're two guys working nights and weekends in a basement in Fridley, and we lucked into a distribution deal with ComputerLand.

It's also worth taking a moment now to remember just how primitive the microcomputers of the day were. My first TRS-80 Model 1 had a whopping 16 kilobytes of memory, and required an expansion chassis to be beefed up to 32 KB. (And not coincidentally, to jam every TV set and radio within a hundred yards, thanks to the naked ribbon cable that extended the data bus from the base to the expansion chassis. Shielding? What is this "shielding" you speak of?) My first Apple II+ had 48 KB of RAM, and required a third-party keyboard ROM and a haywired modification to the motherboard in order to produce lower-case letters. When I finally saved up enough to expand the memory to 64 KB and buy a second floppy disk drive, I was really living large.

This bears reiteration. The microcomputers of the day all used floppy disk drives. (When they didn't use cassette tapes. The TRS-80, Apple II, Atari 400/800, Commodore VIC-20/64, and first-model IBM-PC all had ports for cassette tape drives. Floppy disk drives were an expensive option.) Massive storage was having two floppy drives. This meant that each time the machine was powered up or rebooted, the entire operating system had to be reloaded from floppy, which in turn meant that:

a.) the OS had to be remarkably compact and therefore limited,

b.) every register and memory location in the machine was constantly being reinitalized with every power cycle,

c.) the machine essentially became a different, dedicated system each time it was rebooted and a new application loaded.

This latter aspect had advantages. For example, while working on PolyWriter (which later became Finale, which in evolved form is still on the market today), Phil Farrand, one of the authentic geniuses I've had the good fortune to work with, ran into a seemingly insoluble problem. The bug wasn't in his code; it was in Apple's DOS, and it was a show-stopper. For a few weeks he sought a workaround, trying out alternative solutions and running into brick walls every time, until finally, in frustration, he wrote his own operating system, which solved the problem.

I know, that sounds like a pretty drastic solution. But consider this: since you had to reboot the machine and reload the OS every time you wanted to use the program, why not use an alternative OS? As long as the data files you produce at the end of the day are file-compatible with the standard OS, where's the problem?

Well, it turned out the problem was that this constant rebooting and reinitializing masked a plethora of other problems, which didn't become evident until IBM introduced the XT, the first successful desktop machine equipped with a hard drive. (Apple actually beat IBM to the market with the Apple ///, but that beast can hardly be called successful. I've got two up in the loft of my garage. I used to use my Apple /// ProFile hard drive as a doorstop.) With the advent of the XT, people started turning on their computers and leaving them running for long periods of time, which began to reveal other previously hidden problems.

First up was the issue of "screen burn." It turned out that with the phosphors of the day, if you left your PC powered up and sitting on the same screen for long periods of time, the image eventually became permanently burned into the CRT. If you look around through electronic junk shops today, you can probably still find old IBM monitors with the VisiCalc frame permanently burned into the phosphors.

And thus was the screen-saver industry born...

It's tempting to take a few minutes here to wallow down Memory Lane, and think of all the companies and systems that have come and gone. Osborne, Kaypro, Altos, Corona, Commodore, Tandy, Texas Instruments, DEC: there was a time when Xerox could have owned the word-processing market, if only they'd been a little smarter — but they weren't. Wang: good grief, now there's the company that was synonymous with word-processing and office automation for the better part of a decade, but they were unable to survive the paradigm shift. Then there was the brief window in time when Tandy could have owned the PC-compatible market, if only they'd been able to resist the urge to intentionally make their hardware just slightly incompatible with industry standards, so that you were forced to buy parts and accessories from Tandy — but they couldn't, and they're gone. Ditto for DEC. Ditto for Compaq, but fortunately for them they reversed course in time.

There was a time when every journalist worth his byline packed a Tandy 100, because it was small; light; had a decently readable display, a serviceable built-in no-frills word processing program, and a built-in modem; ran for days on a set of standard AA batteries; and perhaps most importantly, because it had a full-sized but completely silent keyboard. If they'd only kept developing that machine, they could have preemptively staked out the entire mobile computing market segment. But...

The one I want to take a special moment to remember fondly now was the Amiga. When equipped with NewTek's Digital Toaster, it was at least a decade ahead of its time, and a stunningly effective non-linear video editing system. If only it'd hung on long enough to see the advent of digital cameras and streaming Internet video, it could have ruled the world.

But it didn't. They didn't. All these companies, for one reason or another, just missed the brass ring, and all their work has since vanished into the mists of history and the dusty shelves of strange little museums. Perhaps the saddest, strangest case of them all was Digital Research, the company that made CP/M, which before the introduction of the IBM PC was the operating system for serious microcomputing work. It was powerful, versatile, well-developed and thoroughly debugged, and supported a large library of useful applications.

But for some reason — and this is where history conflates with myth and apocrypha — Digital Research shied away from making the deal with IBM, and so Big Blue instead went with an outfit called Microsoft, and a cheapo little CP/M clone OS that Microsoft had bought from someone else that was originally named QDOS, but later renamed PC-DOS and then MS-DOS.

And collectively, we've all been suffering from the after-effects of this decision ever since. be continued...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Software Happens

Author's Note: Back in early '96 I was approached about doing a syndicated column on computers and humor. They asked me to write a couple of sample columns on spec; then, when they saw my first attempts, the deal fell apart. "Too technical," one complained. "Too cynical," said another. "Too long," the third witch added. "What we really had in mind," the first one continued, "is something just like Dave Barry would write, if Dave Barry was writing about computers."

Having no interest in pursuing a career as a Dave Barry Impersonator, I politely declined their offer to submit more samples. Still, I remain rather fond of this column, and from time to time I trot it out again, to see if the world has caught up to it yet.


A conference room in a nondescript modern office park, Anytown, USA. The time is about 10:30 A.M. Seated around the conference room table, in order of declining importance, are:
  • The Executive, whose job it is to make decisions — boldly, assertively, and unencumbered by facts.

  • The Marketing VP, whose job it is to keep the Executive convinced that he|she is a visionary genius, worth every penny of his|her outrageous|insane salary.

  • The Marketing VP's Lackey, whose job it is to babble loudly and enthusiastically, thus making the Marketing VP seem brilliant by comparison.

  • The Quality Assurance Analyst, whose job it is to look out for the customer's best interests. This person is universally reviled.

  • The Senior Software Engineer, who is the one person in the room who actually understands how the company's core product really works.

  • The Junior Software Engineer, because engineers always travel in packs, for safety, to keep from being trampled by rampaging MBA's.


EXEC: (Lounges back in chair, strokes chin, considers everyone in the room with an icy glare.) "Okay, people. It's six months until the Big Trade Show, and word is our major competitor is coming out with a new product that's going to clean our clocks. What have we got?"

SR ENGINEER: "A six-year-old mass of patches upon patches — "

MKT LACKEY: "Which until recently was the industry leader!"

QA ANALYST: "There are serious problems with the AHDA function — "

JR ENGINEER: (Looks up from doodling.) "The what?"

QA ANALYST: "Accelerated Haggis Depletion Allowance. The Feds changed the reporting requirements. As of May 15 last year it's supposed to be printed on taupe-colored 16-pound A4 paper — "

MKT LACKEY: "What if we form a strategic alliance with a paper mill and private-label the form? It'll be a value-added service to our dealers and an additional revenue stream — "

EXEC: "Ahem." (A deathly silence falls over the room.) "As I was saying, six months. What can we do?" (Looks straight at the senior engineer.) "Well?"

SR ENGINEER: (Looks straight back at Exec.) "Seriously? Fix a few of the bigger bugs in the current version."

QA ANALYST: "I can see our trade show booth now. New, Release 3.8! Now with fewer bugs!"

MKT LACKEY: "Please. Release 4."


MKT LACKEY: "We can't announce a '3.8' at the Big Trade Show. We'd look stupid. This has to be a major number, like 4.0. In fact, our customers are getting gun-shy about point-zero releases, too. We'd better make this 4.1."

JR ENGINEER: (Giggling.) "4.1a."

QA ANALYST: (Giggling more.) "4.1a-gamma."

EXEC: "I don't care if we call it Ed. The point is, we need something to announce, and soon. The last magazine review called our user interface 'quaint.' Can we do something about that?"

SR ENGINEER: "Sure. We've wanted to redesign the front end for years. It'll take twelve months' time and cost three million dollars."

EXEC: "What if we double the programming staff?"

SR ENGINEER: "Then it'll take twice as long, cost four times as much, and work half as well."

EXEC: "Okay, forget that." (Looks at QA.) "How about web site feedback? What do our existing customers say they want?"

QA ANALYST: "Reliable products at reasonable prices."

EXEC: (Shakes his head.) "Crazy idealists." (Looks at Mkt Lackey.) "Market research? Is there just one single hot-button feature — "

MKT LACKEY: (Smugly.) "We're the industry leader. We don't do market research; we tell the market what it wants."

EXEC: (Hyperventilating.) "You mean to tell me there is not one flashy new feature we can have ready in time for — "

MARKETING VP: (Who has been patiently waiting for this exact moment to strike.) "Well, I did come up with a short list of," (casually picks up sheet of paper, considers it, then shrugs and drops it), "cosmetic improvements, really. More like a tiny face-lift than a major..."

EXEC: (Eagerly seizes list from Mkt VP, reads it.) "Are you kidding? 'Seasonalize the screen colors?' 'Make the error messages more life-affirming?' This is brilliant!"

MARKETING VP: (Innocently.) "If you say so." (As if in afterthought.) "Oh, I did bring some extra copies." (Produces thick sheaf of neatly bound and collated copies with 4-color covers and PowerPoint presentations on CD; starts passing them around.)

EXEC: (Still reading from list.) "'Embed subliminal advertisements in screen saver?' 'Use fuzzy logic: add maybe option to all yes/no toggles?' This is fantastic! I want all these features in the new release!" (Turns the full force of his glare on the Sr Engineer.) "And this time it ships on-time, come Hell or high water!"

SR ENGINEER: (Finally gets copy of list, reads first item, blanches to dead bone white.) "Oh my God in Heaven..."

I will spare you the rest of the gory details, as I'm sure you already know them. Release 4.1a did ship in time for the Big Trade Show, and it was as buggy as a roach motel. Release 4.1b went out ten days later by Fedex to the most vocal angry customers, and Release 4.1c was on the ftp site by the end of the month. A week after that a mob of angry end-users with torches and pitchforks stormed the office park, dragged the Marketing VP out to the parking lot, built a pyre of burning Lexus upholstery, and...

Hey. We can dream, can't we?