Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

My Conflict Over the Attack on Rooftop Solar

November 23rd, 2015
Special treatment to help something beneficial get started is valid and logical. Now it's time for rooftop solar to take off the training wheels.

Most of us now can become energy producers. We might not produce as much as we consume, but we can put solar panels on our roofs and reduce our energy bills. And if our panels produce more energy than we’re using at the moment, it seems like a good idea to put that energy back on the grid for others to use. Energy storage is inefficient. The burning question: how much do we get paid for that power?

The law differs everywhere but where I live right now, People can sell electricity back onto the grid at the same price they pay for it. While that is great for those with rooftop solar, I’m not so sure it’s great for all of us. The question is: Why is the electricity I sell back to the grid worth twice as much as the electricity utilities buy from other power generators? The utility is forced to pay way more for electricity homeowners produce than they pay anyone else.

The power companies are fighting back by imposing huge fees on solar homes. In some states now, like Arizona (which… solar… duh), if you put in a solar installation you’re slapped with a huge tax to pay for “your share” of the old-world electricity infrastructure. That is also ridiculous. The message in those states: if you go solar, go big enough to get off the grid. A total lose-lose scenario, since the surplus generated by homeowners goes to waste.

And in that battle, I am the biggest loser of all. My euphemistically-named ‘manufactured home’ can’t support the panels. Next-gen solar panels might be light enough. I hope so. But in the meantime, my rates are inflated because some of the electricity I’m buying was bought by my power company at a ridiculously high price.

If I make more electricity than I need, the price I sell that power back to the grid should reflect the cost to the power company to get that energy to its destination. Right now in my neighborhood the power company is required to buy electricity at a loss from schmoes like me. While I have no sympathy whatsoever for the assholes who run the power companies, assholes who endangered public safety to bilk Californians out of billions of dollars and then hid the money behind bogus bankruptcies, I still have to move forward on principles of fairness.

Brief aside: Documents sealed in the Enron trials could get a lot of energy executives serious jail time.

Back to the small. If I produce electricity I don’t need at the moment, I should be able to sell it. The value of that power should be a contract between me (or a collective of people like me) and the power company I’m selling to. The price could change minute-by-minute, based on demand. But it shouldn’t be retail. Sorry, my hippie friends, when I’m producing electricity I am just another power plant; I shouldn’t have an unfair advantage over any other electricity producer.

BUT! While I accept that I should sell my electricity at wholesale, that doesn’t mean I accept the ridiculous taxes on energy-producing households to maintain the grid. The power company can profit from the power I generate the same way it does with power it purchases from big producers.

Power companies across this great nation wish to punish the small producer. They have brought forth taxes to combat the little-guy-friendly laws in many states. Solar power is starting to make real economic sense, even with the government underwriting of fossil fuels.

I think the key was in a parenthetical a couple of paragraphs back: millions of rooftop solar owners combining to form a collective — a single power company that negotiates its rates with the power companies the same way all the other generators do. As solar technology improves, the cost of generation goes down, where the cost of the fossil competitors may enjoy periodic drops, but ultimately must move upward.

If our nation were to say in the meantime that poisoning our water and killing our children is illegal again, even for frackers, that would dramatically increase the leverage of alternative power generators.

Let’s make solar power officially just another source of electricity. Solar is ready to compete on its own merits, without price controls, and despite the staggering portion of our taxes that is spent to maintain the oil industry. PG&E is not going to impose wacky grid taxes on its most cost-competitive supplier. But it’s the people making the electricity who need to speak, not governments. It’s time to take the training wheels off and let solar ride.

Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat


November 19th, 2015
Reality was even more painful than usual.

Today as I was driving to work (really had planned to bike today, but…) I was in stop-and-go next to a Maserati. “That’s a handsome automobile,” I thought. About then I caught a whiff of the oil going out my tailpipe and that brought to mind the mortality of all useful machines. I stopped to look at one of the Maseratis that parks in my structure. It is indeed handsome, even on extended inspection. “I wonder of there’s a Maserati convertible?” I pondered.

There is a Maserati convertible, it turns out. And it’s also a handsome automobile. And… it’s pricey.

Ha. “Pricey.” OK, I know a prestige marque commands a premium, but I wasn’t ready for a price tag that’s damn near twice the Jaguar F-type. That’s the competition, I figure. And while I find the Jag a little butt-heavy (I have heard that the trunk had to be expanded to meet the marketing requirement that it could hold a big-ass set of golf clubs – but if it can only hold one set, that’s what the passenger seat is for), and the Maserati is allegedly a four-seater, there’s just no way to justify spending absurdly too much for the Maserati (assuming you are already reconciled to spending far too much for the Jaguar).

Unless, unless, the Maserati has fewer stupid gizmos. There’s stuff on most modern cars I’d pay to not have. It would take a lot of not-having to justify that price, however.

Writing Writing

Writing for Social Media

November 12th, 2015

It used to be that here at Muddled Ramblings I would just develop ideas at my own pace and trust my readers to hang with me for a few sentences to let things get going (there is actually no evidence that they did that, but I like to believe). Lately I’ve become (perhaps detrimentally) aware that most of my audience is only presented the first couple hundred characters of my ramble before they are presented with a go/no-go decision.

I’m a little bit embarrassed to say that it has changed the way I open my episodes here at MR&HBI. I’m fishin’ for the hook.

Last night as I posted episode one of TFNIWLNW to a new social media platform, I was compelled to add a little preface. The thing is, in all these platforms, what shows to the casual feed-grazer* is only a couple of sentences. TFNIWLNW starts with sexual assault. So, aware that said assault is going unhindered for the first 250 characters of the story, I decided to graft on a little intro with two goals: tell readers that the asshole’s gonna die before we learn what the asshole’s doing, and to introduce the audience to the narrator’s voice. I’m pretty sure I had only a partial success, but you’re welcome to tell me I’m wrong.

Then, not knowing the culture on this new Social Media site, I put in a little parental warning that also used a pretty sweet metaphor and accelerated the understanding that our narrator is, in some fundamental ways, not a nice guy. From a literary point of view the extra words serve a good purpose. From a “goddammit tell me a tale” standpoint they come off as masturbation.

Writers have always needed to put a hook at the start of a story, but the hook now has to catch in the first few words. I’m pretty sure I unhooked TFNIWLW:1 in an attempt to fix it. But if I’m going to keep it up over there, i’ll have to be very careful with the first 70 words of each episode. Maybe that’s a good thing. A book where every scene starts with a hook is the kind of thing about which reviewers say “I could not put down.”
* I am a little bit proud of the phrase feed-grazer, so please don’t tell me how many times you’ve heard it before.

Writing Writing

TFNIWLNW on tsū?

November 11th, 2015
I'm going to try to grow an oak tree on the beach!

I’ve been pondering how to make it easier for people not interested in this blog per se to follow my serial fiction projects, without all the other blog stuff and without my commentary.

I’ve also been curious about a new social media thing called tsū, which shares ad revenue with its users. Get a lot of clicks, get a wee bit of cash. So if I were to publish things there that lots of people liked and shared, it would be cool.

As far as I can tell, tsū is really not suited for serial fiction, or even posts of more than a paragraph or two. It may be completely impossible for people who stumble across Episode 3 to find Episode 1. But maybe, just maybe, it’s a growing platform that would embrace words as well as pictures and memes and whatever the kids are posting up these days.

More likely, I’ll have to find a different platform. But it’s worth a shot.

I’ll keep posting TFNIWLNW here, so don’t fret, kids, you need do nothing to continue to enjoy the upcoming twists and turns, and maybe even a plot. Maybe. But if you’d like to check out what this tsū thing is all about, click this link and you can join up as my personal guest. Or just sign sign up and when they ask you who invited you, use the code ‘vikingjs’.

Bike Bike

What’s In A Name?

November 10th, 2015
It's all about the evolution.

This morning I rode my bike to work for the first time in a good long while. To commemorate the event, I thought I’d give the ride a special name in Strava, one of the apps* I use to track my pedaling. The default name for rides in the morning is, remarkably, “Morning Ride”, but this seemed more significant than that. As I rode through the graveyard, appreciating only peripherally the mist clinging to the ground as I huffed along rather slowly, I thought “Back in the Saddle” might be a good title.

By the time I was pulling my sorry ass up Willow, I had changed my tune a bit. “It’s like starting over,” I hummed, as it seemed I was in no better shape than I had been when I first bought the bike. Somewhere along Los Gatos Creek Trail the title changed again, to “Holy Crap”, and a few miles later on Prospect it was “Oh God Oh God it hurts make it stop.”

By the time I turned onto the benign stretch of Miller Ave. heading north, the name had been simplified to a nice concise “F***”. (I figured Strava wasn’t a place to go saying things like “fuck” where just anyone might see it.)

And now, were you to go to Strava and look me up, you would see my effort this morning is called “Morning Ride.”

*Yes, one of the apps. It’s a long story, the rough draft of which is already in the system.

Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

A Fine Way to Start the Week

November 9th, 2015
Gotta acknowledge the good if you want to whine about the bad.

Fortunately I planned ahead and started stretching the Miata’s top last night — it had been down so long that it had forgotten what up was like. Then on the commute this morning: Thunder! Lightning! (Not necessarily in that order!)

California freeway in the rain? This isn’t So-Cal but the rain still makes already-awful traffic awfuller. Except this morning was the lightest traffic I’ve experienced in weeks, with drivers showing a little extra courtesy I’ve long since given up expecting. Go figure.

Tomorrow back on the bike, but welcome, rain. Don’t be a stranger.

Writing Writing

My NaNoWriMo Helper

November 8th, 2015
If you accept a fairly loose definition of 'help'.

My NaNoWriMo Helper

My NaNoWriMo Helper

I don’t know what I’d do without her.

Stories Stories

November 1, 2015

November 1st, 2015

It has become a tradition for me to post my first day’s efforts for National Novel Writing Month here each year. Some years the day-one spew is more interesting than others; this year my approach to NaNoWriMo is somewhat different and so the product is different as well. What I’m doing is more like research than it is the actual story.

You know how you pick up some stories and you start reading and all of a sudden you’re “treated” to chapters of “how character X got to be here” junk? It’s all stuff that happens before the real story begins, but the writer doesn’t trust himself to show you the character organically so he feels compelled to go off on a huge tangent to explain who the main people are in the story. But it’s not part of the story, and if you can’t make a character’s behavior in the here and now make sense without first presenting a complete biography, then maybe it’s time to review that behavior.

There’s nothing wrong with writing a full backstory for characters, just remember that it’s for you as a writer, not for the reader. Write it, but don’t publish it.

Or, if the backstory is interesting, you can publish it on your Web site as a supplement to the core story. That can be fun for everyone. Just let people meet your characters in the story first.

Oh, by the way, this episode is all backstory. I’m writing it to answer to myself one simple question: “What’s the story with Bags’ pretty sword?” I wrote that in as an interesting detail all the way back in episode one, but I have no more idea what it signifies than you do. So I better figure that out. For the next couple of days I’m writing a story for me only, to hash through Bags and to try to find ways to make him interesting. After that I’ll do the same for Kat. Martin, maybe, maybe not. He lives so much in the moment that the past doesn’t seem to matter to him. He just is.

After that I’ll probably start gushing out versions of what TFNIWLNW would be like if I were to actually write it. The main thing I need now is a plot. Characters and setting will only get you so far. (Though there are plenty of big-name authors who coast on character and setting once people are hooked to their interminable series.)

Anyway, all that backstory I just said one should not publish? Here’s some of it now. One thing about writing backstory just for the sake of backstory: it’s almost all exposition. I’ll be getting into more character development later tonight, but this part is already pretty long to expect a blog audience to read.

I will say, what with it being a series of events, a lot does happen, even if I haven’t examined very much yet what the significance of those events is. At the very end of this bit I finally start getting some traction in that arena.

Anyway, here’s the first part of the first day:

The Fantasy Novel I’ll Likely Never Write: Research

When Baxter Mongret was enjoying his fifth summer, his father went off to war and didn’t come back. When news of father’s death reached the modest cottage where Baxter had been born, all were pleased — but not surprised — to learn that he had died well. “Die young but well and leave plenty of offspring” might have been the family motto, were it not, “In Glory, Everything.”

Each generation of Mongrets saw a few of the men survive long enough to enrich his family with the spoils of war and the favors of grateful nobility, but Baxter’s father had so flawlessly embraced the family’s unspoken credo that he had died gloriously, slaying many enemies and saving the life of a bastard son of a minor prince, but expiring before any of the rewards of such heroism could be conferred upon him.

So it was that Baxter, his still-beautiful mother, one younger brother, and two sisters, found themselves living under the care of his uncle Traistin, one of his departed father’s older brothers.

The next few years were the best of his life. Baxter was set upon by his older cousins, beaten, taunted, and tormented in every way that the nefarious minds of children can invent. He fought them with fist, boot, tooth and words. He always lost. But sometimes he would pause, surrounded by the larger boys, and see Uncle Traistin watching, with a faint smile on his face, and he would give a nod of approval aimed at Baxter alone. Those moments made everything else worthwhile.

One by one the older boys were given over to the master at arms, to begin formal training, and were no longer allowed to tussle with the children. It was a grave and solemn graduation from child from youth, and later from youth to young man. Young men could serve warriors, and would eventually achieve that station themselves, somewhere around their twentieth birthdays. The only step that followed that one was ‘corpse’.

By the time Baxter, or ‘Bags’ as his unkind cousins had taken to calling him, turned seven there were no longer any cousins who could best him. He wasn’t the biggest, though he had the bones to suggest he would be. He wasn’t the most skilled; he moved with the awkwardness of a large puppy still trying to gain control of his skeleton. But he was strong, and he was fast, and more than anything else he was releltlessly untiring. Combined with a patience born of being overmatched, of enduring and waiting for the one chance to strike a blow that might turn the fight, he had the discipline of a mature warrior.

His younger brother William, or “Worm” now to most of his cousins, did not recieve the same attention. He was still too young to be involved in family politics, and as he got older he grew into awareness of his surroundings already knowing the cousins his age. Worm was small for his age, and while he shared his brother’s quickness, he was obvioulsy never going to be a great warrior. Luckily, you don’t need to be a great warrior to die bravely. It might even hasten the path to glory.

On Bags’ seventh birthday, then, one year ahead of when most boys were sent for their arms training, Traistin stood to speak in the family mess hall, and solemnly announced that Baxter Mongret was ready to join the master at arms for formal training. There was much cheering, because Bags was popular among the adults and respected by the other children, but some of his cousins did not like it. Their own father was showing some interloper greater respect than he ever had shown for them.

“You better watch your back, Bags,” Clyde hissed across the table. “We’ll be using real weapons next time.”

Bags smiled. His life would once again become what he was accustomed to. He was going to be the target again, and he was going to learn how to fight all over again.


Only it didn’t work out that way. First, all their fights were carefully controlled by their tutors. Even when the tutor was an older brother of the cousin Bags was fighting, they kept things scrupulouosly fair, lest they dishonor themselves. Nobody was prepared to diminish himself in the eyes of the master at arms. Second, After the first few weeks while he accustomed himself to the new tools of violence, Bags started winning. He fought with joy and daring, without ever being reckless, and he was steadily matched against older and older opponents. The graying men who presided over the training too notice, and gave him personal attention with more sophisticated attacks and defenses. The masters hoped, quietly, to themselves, that Baxter would have many offspring before his inevitable fall. Out loud they told Traistin that Baxter was going to bring great glory to the family.

They were wrong about both those things.


When Bags’ mother got pregnant again, Bags thought nothing of it. Pregnancy was someting that happened to women. Other people seemed terribly upset about it, though, especially Uncle Traistin’s wife Greta. Greta had come from far away to marry Uncle Traistin, and she had never much liked Bags’ mother. She didn’t seem to like anyone, for that matter — she went out of her way to make it clear she was unhappy pretty much all the time. But for Bags’ mother there was a extra special sort of hatred that Bags did not understand, as much as he was aware of it at all.

Most of the other people around the place didn’t seem to care all that much. It all went with the Unspoken Credo. Leave many offspring. A bastard could die gloriously just as well as any other.

Things only got worse when word came that Uncle Traistin had been killed in battle, hundreds of miles away, along with his two eldest sons, fighting for some prince Bags had never heard of. The messenger had ridden through sleet and rain and winter’s muck to bring the news as quickly as possible, as if another day of not knowing would have mattered. His horse died right there in the courtyard, while Bags looked on sadly.

His uncle had died a violent death, but that’s what it meant to be a man in his world. From Bags’ point of view, Glorious Death was the sole reason battles even happened, and princes only existed so that men could die for them. Without princes, what would his family even do?

Traistin was the last of his generation, and his oldest surviving son was a mere seventeen, only now starting on the “many offspring” part of his destiny. Just married and to be honest rather stupid, he was ill-prepared to be head of the household. Which allowed Greta to take control, at least until more distant testicle-bearing relations could make their way to the compund. While she had the ear of her sons, she made two decisions. One, that not all her sons would die in battle. Two, there was no room under her roof for beggars and whores. By whom she meant Bags and his family. Mother and sons she turned out into the winter; Bags’ sisters she sold to a caravaner passing through.


It was only a few weeks before Greta was executed by the men of her family for bringing Dishonor on the name Mongret, but by then the damage was done. Penniless and starving in the snow, Bags’ mother died giving birth to a little boy, who died hours later while Bags held it, crying helplessly. “They turned their backs on us,” His mother panted while she bled into the snow, her doomed infant son wailing in her arms. “Listen how your tiny brother cries for vengeance.” She shuddered. “If you share his cries, Bax, you must remember one thing. One thing…” She coughed and took another shuddering breath, her face as pale as the snow around them. “They must die the death of cravens, or your vengeance will merely hasten them to glory.”


Bags couldn’t even bury his mother and brother. The ground was too hard and he had no tools, and no way to get them. As night fell he heard the furtive sounds of scavengers and predators, drawn to the scent of blood. He woke his younger brother who lay pulled into a ball, shaking in his cloak. Bags pulled him shivering to his feet. “Never forget this place,” he told Worm. “We must always remember.”

Worm nodded. “Always.”

“We have to go now.”

“What’s going to happen to her?”

“She will become part of the forest.” Wolf shit is part of the forest after all.

“Like a spirit?”

Bags nodded, though he had no idea how these things worked. But there were spirits in the woods, and they had to come from somewhere. “Yes,” he said. “And we have to remember this place, remember her, or her spirit will fade.”

Worm, solemn as ever, said, “I will always remember. Even when you forget, I will remember.”

“I won’t forget.”

“You forget everything. Everyone in our family forgets. They forget what people looked like as soon as they’re gone. They forget the happy times they had together. I think we have to forget or we’ll be sad all the time.”

“But not you?”

“Not me. I remember everything.”

“I won’t forget this,” Bags said. “Not this.”

“I won’t let you,” Worm said.

The creatures of the night were getting braver. “We have to go,” Bags said. He took Worm’s hand and led him out of the underbrush and onto the deserted, moon-lit road. “Which way?” he wondered aloud.

Worm pointed to their right. “That way,” he said. “Away from anyone who has ever even heard the name Mongret.”

Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Depression is Organic

October 30th, 2015
We have a wacky definition of health.

Let’s pretend for a moment that the brain is an organ. Of course that’s a silly proposition, the brain is simply who we are. But indulge me for a moment and pretend.

If the brain were an organ, jesus what a complex mofo it would have to be to house our identities.

Now, if you follow me so far with this silly conceit, you have to accept that, just like any other organ, in some people the brain may not function in an ideal fashion. But for something as complex as an organ that defines out identities, “improper function” is hard to pin down. We accept a wide range of functionality and celebrate individuality. I know some messed-up, awesome people.

If we accept the idea that the brain is an organ, we are forced to accept that the brain might have well-documented weaknesses. After all, all the other organs in our bodies fail in well-documented ways. The most complex and mysterious organ in our bodies will naturally be the root of the most complex and mysterious troubles. We need to stop saying “mental illness” and start saying “brain malfunction”.

Hoo – even using the word malfunction rubs against the grain, even though it describes the situation exactly. I invite all out there to come up with a gentler phrase.

I get depressed now and then. I get the feeling that there’s no point in pushing forward. Shit don’t matter anyway. What I feel is a low. We all have lows. Since we all feel some version of the emotion, it is easier to diminish people who have lows lower than any low you will ever know. “I’ve been there,” you think. “I understand.” And implicitly because you survived your low, anyone else should survive theirs. But you don’t know low. Honestly, I don’t know low either. Not that low. For me, a trip into true organic sadness is something to savor, to milk for the characters it informs in my writing. It is not a song of self-destruction coming from somewhere behind my left ear.

There seems to be a chunk of folks (and insurance companies) that would like to pretend that brain malfunction is some invented discomfort designed to bilk you and me out of our hard-earned money. Insurance companies cover every organ except the most important of all. That, my friends, is bullshit.

Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Last-Minute Halloween Booze-Buying Advice

October 30th, 2015

I have been remiss in reminding you all, faithful viewers, that the definitive (and well-written) article for best pairings of alcohol and halloween candy can be found here: The Most Comprehensive List of Halloween Candy & Alcohol Pairings Ever Written.

You can get a little more background on the process here on MR&HBI at All in the Name of Science.


Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat


October 25th, 2015
No product was abused during the filming of this episode.

This is what happens when my hair is short.


Writing Writing

Here Comes November

October 25th, 2015
Setting the bar low for NaNoWriMo this year.

The word ‘NaNoWriMo’ has not been spoken aloud in the house this year. There’s just too much other stuff that we both need to get done, that we’re already way behind on. Just the thought of adding a writing challenge on top of it all is deflating. There was a time when I looked forward to November, and I’ve “won” NaNoWriMo every year since 2001, which puts me in rarefied territory.

But it just hasn’t been as satisfying lately. I go in hoping to regain the writing-every-day mojo, and while I do get a lot of words typed, come December nothing is different.

Still, not even trying is even worse, right? It’s surrender.

Then there’s The Fantasy Novel I’ll Likely Never Write. I’m approaching the episode I’ve been working up to, the one that shows our hero’s Big Flaw, and beyond that I don’t have many ideas. Previous serial fiction published here has been an exercise in off-the-cuff writing, and while that’s fun, the lack of any plan whatsoever shows in the final product. Never mind the low level of polish that write-skim-publish provides, I look back on some of those episodes and see big opportunities lost. If I’m going to continue TFNILNW, I want to do it in a way that’s more enjoyable to read. It will be easier to make sure every word advances the story when I know what the story is.

So this November I think I’ll try to spew out some ideas of where that story might go, and see if I discover a plot. Whatever comes of that, it will NOT be the story you read here. It won’t even be a real rough draft, more a set of sketches to see if I can find something worth writing about.

I will try to do at least a little bit each day. I won’t worry too much about word count. I might write the same scene thirty times; I might drift off on a tangent to see if anything interesting crops up. I might write 5000 words of backstory on one of the characters, just to dig into what makes them tick. Whatever I come up with won’t be readable as a story, that’s for sure. If I get 50,000 words, that will be fine. If I don’t, my streak will be over and I can relax.

If I get a plot, that will make the month a success. I’d even settle for a theme. If I find neither then that will probably be it for TFNIWLNW. But I’m going to own November this year, not be its slave.

Stories Stories


October 22nd, 2015
Making progress toward a character tipping point, even if an actual plot remains elusive.

Episode 6

Civilization at last. Or a reasonable attempt at civilization, at least. Mountain Forge is a squat stone blister on the side of a mountain, habitable only because shit runs downhill. Its five hundred inhabitants, mostly male, are there to extract wealth from the stone, and for little else. But where there are men with money there will always be alcohol, and where there is alcohol and money there will be gambling. A truth as eternal as the stones under out feet. The alcohol would be watered and the games would be rigged, but those are problems a resourceful man can manage.

We slogged into town through steady rain, the gray mud sucking at our feet adding to the effort of our climb. I had long since given up trying to keep the moisture from permeating my clothes, my skin, even my bones. My cloak weighed twice what it usually did and my trousers chafed my inner thighs. My feet had swollen up in my shoes and threatened to burst the worn leather.

We hadn’t spoken much before, but once the rain came we plodded in silence, each of us wrapped up in our own personal misery. We marched, Kat in front, Bags in the middle, and me staring at Bags’ rain-sodden ass mile after mile. The trees became sparser and shorter as we climbed, until they quit entirely on the outskirts of Mountain Forge. The wind kicked up and drove the raindrops under the brim of my hat, a thousand icy needles stinging my skin.

Kat stopped before reaching the first stone hovel at the edge of town and waited for us to pull up next to her. “They will know about Sothron’s murder. There will be a reward. Someone here might try to claim it.”

At that point, I would have taken a cell in the deepest pit over more rain. Still, it’s important to remain pragmatic when running for your life. “Will there be time to get drunk first?” I asked.

Kat snorted as if I’d told a joke. “Just be alert. The baron was not well-liked here. Most people here hated him even more than they love money. But the temptation will linger in their hearts if they think they can get away with killing you and delivering your head to the authorities without having their own guts poured out in the street first.”

I looked up the muddy lane flanked by low stone structures, their granite walls dark with the rain. Coal smoke rose from chimneys only to surrender and roll back down to the ground, adding to the heavy mist, and giving the town a ghost-like cast. Farther up the lane the buildings became larger, more permanent-looking. One of those would have booze, a fire, and other entertainment. I started walking. “Speaking personally,” I said, “I’ve never heard of Baron Whosifuck. I just want a drink.”

“We’re in this together,” Kat said.

I stopped, turned, and regarded her. “No,” I said. “We’re not. There is no ‘this’ for us all to be in on. An asshole is dead. We all agree that’s a good thing. But that’s done now and the next step is to not be killed just because some rich bastard got his throat cut. I promised Bags a new shirt, and he’ll get one. But first I’m going to get warm, get dry, eat a hot meal, and try not to get stabbed for playing dice better than the locals. None of those things require your participation.”

She looked like I had taken her favorite toy away. “You don’t understand.”

“Actually, Katherine, I do. Better than you do, I think.”

Bags raised his big hand in a gesture somewhere between a wave and a salute. “See you later then,” he said.

I raised my own. “Let’s go find the blacksmith of this shithole after lunch tomorrow.”

He smiled. “You’ll still have some money then?”

“I’ll run out of welcome long before I run out of money in a town like this,” I said.

“Well, try not to get killed before tomorrow.”

“We’ll be staying in the same place,” I said. “I’ll leave it to you to keep me alive.” With that I turned and trudged up the road into town. I heard Bags and Kat exchanging words behind me, but I chose not to hear what they said. There was nothing she could say that hadn’t been said about me many times before.

Observations Observations

A Tip of the Hat to the Folks Who Designed the AMC Pacer

October 21st, 2015

The Pacer's greenhouse. CC BY-SA 2.0 Daniel R. Blume

The Pacer’s greenhouse. CC BY-SA 2.0 Daniel R. Blume

When the AMC Pacer came out back in the 1970’s, it was freakishly ugly. Now, it’s just plain ugly. The designers of the Pacer took a running leap at the future… and missed. But all these years later, we can see that curved-glass, wide-stance aesthetic in many attractive modern cars. We just hadn’t developed the vocabulary back then to assess what they had done. “The wide-track people have a way with cars” didn’t really sell it.

By golly, AMC was actually decades ahead of its time (at least where style is concerned). But without the materials, and, most importantly, other designs to evolve from, the Pacer remains mired in the ’70’s even while it crosses into the third millennium. It’s a mix that doesn’t work. At all. But I wonder whether any of those big-name designers that went on to build the bridge between 1970’s and now credit the peek into the future the Pacer afforded them.

Reading Reading

Altered Carbon and Spin State

October 15th, 2015
Different stories with a lot in common.

It’s been a while since I’ve shared my thoughts about books I’ve read. While I tag the episodes as “reviews”, I’m not really trying to write something to help you decide whether or not you want to read the story — it’s more an analysis of the writing to give me new ways to look at my own work.

Recently I bowed to the suggestions of Amazon and bought two Science Fiction novels, Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan and Spin State by Chris Moriarty. I must say that the Amazon suggest-o-matic did a fine job.

The two books have much in common. For instance, both take place in universes where information is not bound by the speed of light. This give the universe the absolute timeline that makes faster-than-light stories so much simpler. Spin State uses Quantum mechanics sleight-of-hand (thus the title), while Altered Carbon uses less well-defined hand-wavery.

This leads to the core thesis in both books: If information can go faster than light, and humans can be described as information, then people can go faster than light. And if people are information, then information can be a person. Both stories have characters who are Artificial Intelligences. (They would argue that they are not artificial at all.)

In Carbon, (almost) everyone has a module installed in their head that records the current state of their brain. In the event of untimely death (‘untimely’ open to interpretation, budget, and religious belief), that personality and everything it knew up until the moment the recorder stopped working can be restored into someone else’s head (unless, of course, the recorder was also destroyed). Bodies are now referred to as “sleeves”, and there are more people than there are sleeves. The deceased and the incarcerated are now just files in a database, waiting for flesh to host them once more.

If you have enough money, you can live forever. You can even clone up a batch of replacement bodies, keep them in cold storage all over the place, and hop from one to another as a form of instantaneous travel. You can even have multiple copies of yourself, but that’s illegal, of course.

When you can live forever, it changes you. You’re lose a little of what it means to be human. You become a Methuselah.

Takeshi Kovacs is a bad-ass Envoy for the U.N., trained to withstand the stress of dropping cold into a new world, in a new body, and Doing What Needs to be Done. This time he finds himself on Mother Earth, the memory of his last death (and the death of good friends) only minutes old, subjectively. His sleeve this time has some fairly high-end cybernetic upgrades that make him stronger, faster, etc. He’s been called in by one of the wealthy immortals of Earth to solve that man’s murder — a murder so thorough that the ancient one lost two days of memory. The police have ruled it a suicide.

Takes has been downloaded into a body that used to belong to a cop who has been convicted of Horrible Crimes. The Envoy’s new employer chose that sleeve partly out of spite, as it’s the cop’s lover who is in charge of the murder case. She hates the Methusalahs, and they don’t miss a chance to rub her face in their power. Now she has to deal with some other asshole in the flesh of the man she loves.

It leads to some interesting questions about identity and what it is that attracts one person to another. Is part of attraction chemical, not governed by the information of who we are and how we think, but instead by glands and receptors and the stuff that’s built into our meat? Do we become chemically familiar with the people around us?

One thing I didn’t buy: criminals are put on the shelf for a given period of time. This is supposed to be a punishment, but think about it: if you rob a bank and get caught, you will be instantly (as far as you experience) shot a hundred years into the future. Sure there’s some shock there, but unless you posit that society and technology has completely ground to a halt, the future looks pretty bright to me.

Altered Carbon is a detective story with Science Fiction clothing, and it follows the Detective Story Contract: The reader is given the information needed to figure out the answer, so when the detective reaches the conclusion you say, “ah, sweet!” rather than, “Hey, I call shenanigans!” Morgan does this well, though there are a lot of moving parts. For a while I was reading this at bedtime, and not in big chunks, and found myself going “wait – who’s that again?” a few times. If your memory’s like mine, this is a novel to read in big chunks.

I had several theories as the story progressed, and was right often enough to feel clever but there were still plenty of surprises. It was a fun read.

Notable side effect of the technology: once everyone’s wired up, advertising goes straight into your head. And it’s really effective.

In Spin State, Catherine Li is a bad-ass Soldier with the U.N., specially trained to drop in on a planet and Do What Needs to be Done. Her body has some fairly high-end cybernetic upgrades that make her stronger, faster, etc, but it’s past time she took them in to the shop for maintenance. We first meet her on a commando raid on a facility on some backwater planet. Their mission: get into the facility and stand by while a kick-ass AI gets what is needed from their data systems. An AI has no physical presence, but it can temporarily take control of a body that has special hardware installed.

The raid doesn’t go perfectly; the person who was the host for the AI gets killed, and Li blames the AI. Then she’s sent off to her next mission, which turns out to be a real bitch. It’s on her home world, and a past she doesn’t remember starts to catch up with her.

There’s a wrinkle when people are sent across the void using quantum-mechanical spin state stuff: A person’s memories don’t always come out intact on the other side. As a person makes more jumps, they become more and more reliant on hardware installed in their heads to remember things for them. That means that their bosses see everything, and soldiers only remember what their boss wants them to. Li has a vague notion that she’s done some things she’s not proud of during a grinding, protracted struggle in a war that’s over but not really. It makes me think of Stalingrad. The enemy in this case is a system of worlds called the Syndicate who have decided that the old way of making new people is obsolete; instead they clone up batches and throw away all but the best, culling them as they develop until there is a family of exceptional humans who all have the same face.

It turns out Li has one of those faces, but she’s had it surgically altered to escape discrimination in UN space. Another woman with the same face is a famous scientist who has been murdered. And Whaddayaknow? We have an action-mystery story. You see, the quantum-spin faster-than-light mechanism relies on an exotic material that only comes from one place. Once that supply runs out, humanity must return to decades-long (centuries-long?) journeys between planets, and the UN’s benign rule becomes impossible to maintain. So Famous Scientist was trying to figure out a way to synthesize the material. Or at least, that’s what she told people she was doing.

So that AI that flaked and may have cause the death of Li’s comrade? It goes by the name Cohen, was born on Earth (when Earth was still a pleasant place to be), and clearly has designs of its own, however much it may be working with the UN right now. And it has a history with Li. Cohen interfaces with the world through a variety of people who have shunts installed, and I have to tip my hat to Moriarty for his carefully natural-sounding language differentiating the host meat from the personality within.

Lesson one: Don’t turn your back on someone with a shunt installed. You never know who might show up.

Li is the natural pivot point in all this: she has hidden Syndicate roots but embodies rugged individualism; she has a connection with a powerful AI, and she does the ugly jobs for her boss who is a Big Wheel at the UN. She’s a good soldier and accepts that she remembers what her superiors choose, but she’s convinced that it’s all for the right reasons. She roots for the wrong baseball team, but I’ll forgive her that.

Warning: Spoilerish paragraph:

While the AI in Altered Carbon is an interesting side character, Cohen in Spin State is central. He (yes, ‘he’) was one of the first machine intelligences to emerge, and much of the time he seems, well, human. Later Moriarty shows us that ‘Cohen’ is not really singular, and that the nature of machine intelligence is entirely different than our mushy biological intelligence. Yet they share one thing with us: a desire for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are also better than us at just about everything. In that light, the human engineering programs of the Syndicate start to make a lot of sense. Alter humanity or get left behind.

There were, I must say, a couple of things that bothered me about this story. I simply cannot believe that the mine for the material that the entire economy is based on would be run the way it was in this story. Even if extracting the mineral is an art form, the rest of the labor would be more cheaply done by robots in a society this advanced. I think the writer could have found plenty of other ways to create local unrest.

Also, virtual reality has advanced to the point where it’s indistinguishable from physical reality. I’m having a hard time articulating what it is about that that bothers me, except that it seems to be unable to let go of physical reality. People meet in virtual representations of real places, and can be embarrassed by the arrival of other people in that place also. If you’re a super-AI, how do you allow that to happen?

But for those nit-picks, I enjoyed this story quite a lot.

Two stories of hard-nosed people in over their heads. There is shooting, and sex, and explosions, and questions of identity. People die horribly when their heads are hacked. Philip Morris will be glad to know that tobacco has followed mankind to the stars and back again, to be thrown in an acid-rain puddle under a flickering streetlamp while taxis rush by.

Note: if you use the above links to buy one of these books (or The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey), I get a kickback.