College weather

I’m looking out my window at the beautiful day today, and it’s killing me. I’ve been out there already at lunchtime, but still I’m drawn outside. The sky is blue with fluffy clouds, it’s only about 80° out, and the light is just so that it pushes all the right buttons in my soul to make me want to get out there.

As a creature of patterns, familiar weather always puts me in nostalgic moods, but some more than others. This day specifically reminds me of the day I went to college orientation, 22 years ago. I was 17 years old at the time, and I’m pretty sure it was the Tuesday right before the Fair. (Although I could be wrong; it could have been that Thursday, which would have been opening day for the Fair. Either way I know classes always started the following Monday, a week before Labor Day.) It’s hard not to look back on that time without nostalgia, especially those first few days of classes that I remember were so sunny, just like this.

The feeling inside me now is a lot like the spring madness, except it’s sort of an end-of-summer madness. There’s a fall madness too, but this is different. Every cell in my body wants to run outside and drive somewhere to enjoy the day. And today I have the freedom to do it; I’m my own boss and could take the time off if I wanted to. The problem is, I don’t know where I would go, or what I would do when I got there. I have no outdoor agenda right now, and wouldn’t mind playing a part in someone else’s.

I’m not in any particular mood to go on a shopping spree. I can’t think of any “destination” types of places that I would want to go, particularly since anything that comes close is a fall thing. Right now my body is primed to want to go out to the Fair, but we’re two days early here.

The sad thing is, by sticking with my normal routine I feel like I’m squandering this beautiful day. I have nothing particular that I would do with it, but it feels wasted anyway. Would that I could swap this out for a day in February; I could live with a little snow right now, in exchange for a day of warmth and sunlight and beautiful leafy green when the world is bleak.

But still, pity the poor kids in those evil places where school—not college, mind you, but public school—has already started. When I become a supervillain, I will criminalize starting the school year before Labor Day, and ending it after May. At least I have the choice to go out if I wanted to; I’m stymied for more complex reasons. A kid should have the chance to play on a day like today, and around here at least they still can. For now. The time is running short, the sun is setting earlier, and to quote House Stark, winter is coming.

Oh, well. At least pretty soon McDonald’s will expand their all-day breakfast menu.

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Of man and machine

As a sci-fi reader, and writer, I’m fascinated by some technologies that appear to be on the horizon—maybe distantly, but then it’s surprising how fast science fiction tends to become reality in the least expected ways. I didn’t think self-driving cars could be a thing, even at a primitive stage, for another couple of decades at least. The sheer number of problems that needed to be solved—and to be fair, many still do—was astronomical, and they were incredibly hard ones. But self-driving cars are here, now, and it’s like stumbling into a dream.

A few years back I read a story about an experiment with sensory enhancement. The author of the piece mentioned how he tried out a belt with a number of vibration motors spaced evenly all around, and it would vibrate on the side facing magnetic north. As he acclimatized to the device, this one simple additional sense gave him not only an impeccable sense of direction, but an excellent internal map and a constant sense of where home was. And when the device was removed for good, a corresponding feeling of disorientation crashed down.

I couldn’t help but be impressed by how cool that was. A brand new sensory organ, invented and added to the body, was quickly accepted and relied upon by the brain and produced results well beyond the device’s simple function.

Today I read that brain implants are becoming a bigger deal. Right now they’re being used to improve signaling and function in dementia sufferers. It’s an amazing leap forward, but when I read it I was surprised by how little that resembles where I think cybernetics are ultimately headed.

For a long time now I’ve had a thought rumbling around my head, an idea of what an early incarnation of true cybernetics will look like. Picture a tiny chip designed to accept neural inputs and produce outputs. It’s built to last for the lifespan of its host, and not corrode or evoke an immune response. It runs on body heat or an internal fuel like ATP. Its inputs and outputs are electrically or chemically set to encourage natural neurons to bond to it, and they have long filaments so that many neurons can connect.

The chip within is a simple device capable of only basic mathematical functions—maybe even just addition and subtraction.

Building on the lesson of the directional belt, imagine what this device would do when implanted into a human brain. Humans process math on a learned level that has to build up a lot of connections, but this chip could do it with lightning speed. Neurons would connect math processing to and from the chip, greatly accelerating the process. Humans augmented this way might even begin to see math itself differently, taking on far greater abstract challenges than they typically could without it.

But here’s the even weirder part: There’s no reason to believe that this chip’s operation would be strictly limited to math. The brain would simply have this tool available to use however it wanted to. For all we know, the very same device could be instrumental to increased visual or audio acuity. It might end up being used to link associative memories in new and unexpected ways. Simply having a chip that has neuronal connections but does not act like a neuron would be like opening an entirely new dimension of thought.

I’d like to envision a future where far more advanced versions of this tech exist, where the chip is actually a complex device that can do a lot of things, but what’s amazing to me is the potential that even a simple little device would have—or a plethora of such devices, scattered through the brain like chocolate chips. A simple adder might be the brain function equivalent of mitochondria to a cell.

How would those augmented humans perceive the world? How would their intelligence be impacted? We tend to think of advanced intelligence as hampering social skills or empathy, resulting in either a robot or a sociopath—but what if it didn’t? What if such things vastly improved their ability to form bonds with more and more people, and to catch signals they might otherwise ignore so that they became better communicators?

Maybe it’s a lot of wasted speculation; it could be decades, if at all, before we move in that direction. But then, there are self-driving cars.

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Chapter names

I name chapters when I write. I know authors have different opinions on this and different styles, and I confess I’m rather curious what makes people choose one way or the other. For me, while it’s my preferred style it’s nothing I’m locked into. However, when I have stylistic reasons not to do it, I have other compelling reasons to keep naming chapters anyway.

From my earliest novel experiment to my first actual published novel, I named chapters right along. (In my earliest work, I also numbered them.) I like the challenge of coming up with an interesting chapter name. But when I wrote The Affix, I had no such intention; in fact it was broken up with scene breaks, and had no chapters at all until I got into the editing process.

What I discovered while editing The Affix was that breaking the story up into chapter-sized chunks and giving those chapters names made it a million times easier to keep my place and know where I was in the story at any given moment. Simply landmarking the story gave me an enormous sense of the flow of events. The names I came up with were half tongue-in-cheek, and originally I’d planned to keep them for my own use but strip them out on publication. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the names, and so they stayed.

Next up in the can I have Below, the first book in the Merchantman Halflight series, and Gray Area. With the first two, naming chapters was a no-brainer, but when I wrote Gray Area I deliberately tried to break away from chapter names. Each chapter was numbered: 1 through 45. (They’re mostly short.) I liked the old-school simplicity of that. Many sci-fi books I’ve read have numbered chapters that way, never giving them names. But the more I worked on editing, the more I realized that a lack of signposts was a hindrance. And even worse, the table of contents—a must in an e-book—looked dreadful.

As a result of this realization, I’ve had to make some changes to Gray Area. I gave the chapters titles, and took away their numbers. I’m going to change the TOC to a two-column format with “Now” and “Then”, since the story alternates between present and past timelines. I think it will work better.

But it saddens me that the numbered format didn’t work out. Oh, I could have made it work, and in spite of editing difficulties it wasn’t all that bad. What put it over was the TOC. I just couldn’t stand that it was nothing more than a table of numbers. I’d prefer to omit it entirely, but with an e-book you really can’t do that.

Quite some time ago I noticed that one of my favorite authors, William Gibson, switched to a format where his short chapters all had names based on a word or phrase in the chapter. (I was reminded of this recently when I read The Peripheral over vacation.) I mostly went with that here, because it seemed like a good compromise. For the most part, there was no call for evocative or clever chapter titles.

So now, once I get the TOC squared away and get the story to some readers, I think it’s good to go. And then I’ll have three books fully in the can. I really, really need to find me a cover artist for Below. But finding a cover artist for the Halflight series will be a much bigger job.

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Bested by the stairs

My wife and I are both tremendous klutzes. We’ve both had a few moments over the last 8½ years where we stumbled a little on the stairs. But until recently, neither of us either fell down them properly.

A week ago, the day after I got back from vacation, I started downstairs and my feet immediately shot out from under me. I slid down the stairs on my butt and my back most of the way to the bottom. My back and my head are fine, but I managed to wrench my left arm something serious while trying to catch myself.

I found out immediately afterward that I couldn’t lift the arm at all; my upper arm and shoulder were too messed up to allow it. I did not, however, go to urgent care, because I figured—and anecdotally others have backed me up on this—that there’s probably nothing doctors can do except maybe prescribe something for pain and/or inflammation, and wait. I figured there was no point going through expensive X-rays (or worse, an MRI) just to find that out. My mother-in-law says she suspects it’s a rotator cuff injury; I think she’s right.

So far the injury has been healing at a rate I find incredibly hopeful. Just over a week later, I can move my arm around a lot more. I had a very brief moment today of full mobility. I try to stretch the arm a little bit, push its limits just a tad but then immediately rest. I’ve been taking anti-inflammatories and for the first few days I iced it. I’ve just started taking glucosamine and chondroitin, and I’ve been taking more fish oil and magnesium. I think I’m doing everything right that I can.

But boy, this has not been a fun week. I discovered immediately that brushing my teeth right-handed was a no-go. I’m left-handed and can do a great many things with my right, but brushing wasn’t one of them. Getting my shirt on and off has been difficult, and putting on deodorant even more so. I didn’t drive for a whole week, until just today, because I didn’t think I’d be able to grasp the wheel.

Bedtime has been the worst. Getting into bed in the first place has been a painful experience, and pulling up the covers mostly impossible. I sleep mostly on my side, and I’m accustomed to switching sides during the night. But sleeping on my left wasn’t a possibility, so I’ve been sleeping mostly on the right—which eventually hurts, because I’m overweight. As a result my right shoulder has started hurting too, and the first couple of nights I had to get up early and go sleep in the recliner in the living room as best I could (which wasn’t well at all). The bright spot is that the other night, my in-laws gave us a piece of foam meant for a bed-topper that I was able to sleep on, and although it didn’t seem to help much that night, it did wonders for me last night. I’ve slowly regained the ability to spend some time on my left side as well.

This week has taught me not to take my arms for granted. Or stairs. Never take your footing on the stairs for granted.

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When good imagination goes bad

Lately my sleep cycle has been messed up: I think from a combination of low-level allergies, the change in light levels for the summer, and who knows what else. It seems like any time this happens, half the people I know are experiencing it too. The end of my night during these phases is typically punctuated by vivid dreams. About a week and a half ago, one of those dreams was so intense that it got me to thinking I should write about it, because I think it’d end up as a cool flash fiction or short story in a Twilight Zone kind of style. (Not coincidentally, I’ve been catching up on episodes I taped from the New Year’s marathon.) Dreams like that can be amazing sources of inspiration, and a series of related dreams under similar circumstances ended up fueling my first book.

But then there are times like last night, this morning.

As a rule I don’t watch horror films—of any kind, supernatural or otherwise. I do like Tremors, which is almost more horror-comedy, but when I was younger I had a lot of trouble with the early death scenes. But worse than supernatural or creature horror is where the genre crosses into the awful stuff humans do to each other. I can’t even watch true crime shows—which my wife loves—or often enough even the news, because it makes my blood boil.

This morning at the end of my sleep, I again had vivid dreams. But a dream that started out as a high-profile trial for a group of terrorists (that’s weird in itself) turned into a set of weird but explainable events, and then into a horror movie that had nothing to do with the previous plot. It never got into any gore or anything serious; it didn’t get a chance to progress that far. It got as far as the premise, and that was enough.

In sleep my brain managed to spit out a fully-formed concept for a horror franchise. I say franchise, because I dreamed the first sequel. So complete was this idea that it came with a title. It’s edgy, it’s meta (the studios love that), and it’s frighteningly, utterly plausible. This is something that not only could be done as a movie, but could be done in real life by people sick enough to go there. And I have no doubt that if I got on a plane this second, flew to California, barged into the studio director’s office at some place that does these kinds of films, and pitched them the idea in the seven seconds before I was thrown out, this franchise would be birthed into the world. I’d never see any money for it that way, because of course that’s not how Hollywood works, but the point is this worm is too juicy for that big stupid fish not to bite.

This isn’t to boast, and I’m not exaggerating how perfect this concept is. I don’t have a script; I don’t have any idea how the story would play out, and I don’t want to. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that in the hands of any horror-friendly studio and given to any of their stable of hack writers, this would be an instant hit. They’d pump out film after film.

This can never be.

The premise for the movie is so plausible, only logistics stand in the way of it being done in real life. There are a few bars to entry, but lest I give away any ideas I won’t say what they are. I feel like the odds of this happening in real life are vanishingly small, even with the films out there, but it’s a risk I won’t take. And I won’t put this kind of filth into the world. When I eventually die, this idea will go with me.

Now this is the part that scares me even worse: Whenever my mind has come up with ideas so well formed, it seems like there’s always been someone else in the world coming up with it at the same time. I’ve forgotten all the concrete examples, but I remember numerous times through my childhood and adolescence that someone else came up with a word or phrase, or idea, that I’d had not long before. Call it group consciousness if you like, or coincidence which is probably the most likely. Consider that maybe the currents of our culture wash more than one stray leaf into a freak eddy, that some ideas are inevitable. This feels like one of them.

I fear that someone else will have this idea, only they’ll see it to fruition. I just have a hunch that I’ll see this happen. Heck, even under the exact title. I won’t blame that person for it; their values are not my values. Nor will I blame the studio, not any more than I already do anyway. But I feel that this meme, having come to me, who rejected it, will soon come to others and will eventually find fertile soil.

As a writer it feels almost like sacrilege to kill an idea. You can’t just let an idea die, because they don’t do that on their own. I’ve had a few good ones that have not yet found their way into my work, but sit in the wings begging me to find a place for them. This one will never find a place; it will never see the light of day, at least not from me. And I’ll never regret that.

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The hollandaise question

One of the video channels I like to follow on YouTube is Food Wishes, and recently Chef John posted a video on how to make a hollandaise sauce. This got me thinking. I’ve never had eggs Benedict in my life, and the main reason is that I’ve always feared hollandaise is too close in format to mayonnaise. A little research recently told me that it is in fact a form of mayonnaise, just one where butter is the main fat and the egg yolks are cooked.

I am fundamentally incapable of eating mayo. I discovered this at a very young age. It probably ties in with the fact that I really can’t do any of the classic condiments, like ketchup and mustard—and the best theory I have going for this to date is that they’re all vinegar-based. I hate ketchup on two prongs, one of them being that I can’t stand tomatoes. I loathe both the smell and the taste of mustard. But mayo stands out above them, because I’ve been forced to “try” foods based on it before, and it triggers my gag reflex something hideous.

My parents really pushed me on a lot of foods, from time to time anyway, when I was younger. I don’t blame them for that, because you kind of have to nudge kids out of their comfort zone, and mine has always been limited. But the experiences I remember the worst all came from mayo.

I don’t think I’ve ever tried macaroni salad, but I have been made to eat potato salad on at least two occasions. I recall, all too vividly, pushing around a chunk of potato in my mouth, smearing the interior with a sauce that lit up my taste buds like a pinball machine—if the ball was spiked and made of hate—and being unable to make it stop because I physically could not swallow. Nor could I chew, which made the torment worse. Every attempt to force it down caused a gag spasm.

Tuna fish was worse. I gave up fish forever a long, long time ago, and will never look back. When I was a kid I used to eat fish sticks, and they were just sort of okay, but one time I finally had enough and realized I didn’t care for the flavor of fish anyway. Now combine that with mayo. At least once, tuna fish was all there was for dinner, and I know that at least once, I tried. I tried, and failed. I don’t remember that crap in my mouth, because I think I’ve blacked it out, but I did try. I found skipping dinner and going hungry far preferable than suffering through that.

My most recent encounter with mayo (and ketchup) was a burger accident, not discovered until I got home even though I thought I’d checked the burger well enough, that rocketed me up to an instant 20 on the Nicki Minaj rage scale. I had to scrub my mouth out with a paper towel, and even then I couldn’t get rid of the lingering taste.

There are hard limits and soft limits, and many that when challenged did eventually go away. I know I had many soft ones. I wouldn’t touch mushrooms as a kid because they squicked me out—although I now think it’s because I associated the smell of them with one Christmas when I was sick as a dog—but as an adult I love them. I wasn’t a big eater of beef when I was little, but thankfully that didn’t last; although I’ve still never developed a taste for beef in a roast. I don’t do gravy, and I’ve never minded. There have even been many times—none recently, or ever again—that I’ve struggled through something with tomatoes out of politeness. But condiments, mayo in particular, are a hard limit. (So is salad dressing, on a lesser level. I don’t eat salad because a salad without dressing is inedible, and with dressing is gross.)

Which brings us back to hollandaise. Most hollandaise is, as I understand it, made with lemon juice and not with any vinegar at all. And butter, lots of butter. I love lemons, and have been happy to eat them raw. Sourness itself does not scare me; I love it. I know that some people make hollandaise with vinegar, but for the most part I think it’s usually just lemon. And this makes me wonder: Could I eat hollandaise sauce, or would it be so much like regular mayo that it’d trigger a gag?

I will remain curious, because this is not an experiment I dare try. I know my limits now. I know which ones I can push and which I can’t; when to try new things and when not to. Family members who know me consider me positively adventurous now in comparison to my youth, but certain borders of the food landscape may as well be guarded with barbed wire and concrete. And so it shall stay.

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Mocking the Web-challenged, redux

My issues with the Weather Channel’s site remain ongoing. A few weeks ago I let them know that the new system they were using to load up content was broken, because their developers thought it’d be brilliant to use native geolocation built into a browser without checking to see if the browser gave them access. If it didn’t, it caused a cascade of JavaScript errors that basically kept any of their content from appearing. This made it very hard to check the weather. If I turned geolocation on, the problems went away, but obviously that’s not a real solution, so I let them know about it.

The good news is, they fixed the geolocation issue. The bad news is, they managed to screw up two more things in exactly the same way.

When I checked back in some time later, I found that content still wouldn’t load—but now, turning geolocation on doesn’t do squat, because I’m no longer getting errors about that. What I did get were errors regarding the Promise feature from EMCAScript 6, and localStorage. I reported these as well.

Promises are an interesting thing, very similar to Futures in Dart which I’ve been working with a lot. Their support is relatively wide, but as with all new Web features it’s nowhere near what you could call universal. On caniuse.com, support for Promises is rated at about 67%. This means if someone visits with a browser that doesn’t have them, the Weather Channel should be including a polyfill script if they want to use Promises.

I got an e-mail back from them. They fixed the Promise issue, and apparently disregarded my note that there was also an error with localStorage.

I have localStorage disabled on most sites, and as a result, the Weather Channel’s script throws a security error when attempting to use it. This error is not being caught (of course), and it therefore prevents some of their core objects from being created. Without those objects, the content loading still fails.

Naturally, I had to reply telling them the loading problem still wasn’t fixed. Which it would have been (I didn’t say this part) if the developers had read my entire message the first time around.

So to recap, so far I’ve seen three site-murdering errors.

  1. Let’s rely on geolocation, which some users may disable for obvious privacy reasons.
  2. Let’s rely on the browser having good EMCAScript6 support, which is obviously a bad idea.
  3. Let’s rely on localStorage, which some users may disable for obvious privacy reasons.

Ugh. I know how hard it is to be a developer. I know how hard it is to develop Web content that works across a wide spectrum of browsers and user profiles. But I also know what a frelling try/catch block is, and I know you never, ever take new options for granted even if support seems fairly good. Unless support is darn near universal, you always fall back. And if a user disables something, you need to handle it. I don’t go as far as worrying about users disabling JavaScript altogether, but having come from the dark days of worrying about IE6, I know the value of preparing for the worst.

There are times I envy some of the younger programmers who are pushing the envelope with new technologies, and it’s really an amazing time for Web development because it’s so much easier to write code that just plain works now. (At least, you would think so.) But on the other hand, I see what lack of experience is doing to these millennials, and it just makes me wince. These particular errors are rookie mistakes, not something you should see on a big site.

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