They Know Too Much

Tonight I was surprised when I saw a banner ad with the name of my employer in it. Had the robot that created the ad known the significance of that name, it would not have bothered. But I loaded a Web page, and the Google-backed ad placement service provided personal data to the adbot, and there it was.

WTF? Then I realized I was using Chrome. I don’t normally. This eye-opening invasion is in fact what most people experience every day.

From a legal standpoint, I should be able to demand that Google delete all their profile information about me. But in fact I can only demand they delete the information directly related to my google accounts. Somehow, despite the depth of this profile, they cannot find a way for me to establish its ownership. Fuckers.

Why I am Not Convinced that We Should Remove Trump from Office

Anyone who thinks Donald Trump would even take the time to learn what the rules are before he broke them is delusional. The Donald has lived his entire life in a world where the rules don’t apply to him. He’s even bragged about that. He’s not intentionally breaking the rules, because he doesn’t care what the rules are to start with.

So it’s not going to take much digging to come up with a smoking gun bad enough to get Trump convicted of some malfeasance or other, and when the rat is on the table, a few carefully-selected Republicans in the Senate will have to “vote with their consciouses” and Donnie won’t be president anymore.

But here’s the thing. Should that happen, the Republican Party will let out a huge sigh of relief. The Republicans right now are paddling a canoe in choppy waters with a fizzing hand grenade rolling around in the boat. The ones doing the paddling know that if the hand grenade goes off, the boat sinks.

Along come the Democrats, who say, “We demand that you throw that hand grenade overboard!” The Republicans protest, but in the end they reluctantly jettison their deadly cargo. Not their fault! And so the same bastards that brought us WWE politics will be allowed to carry on, and suddenly the other clowns like Ted Cruz seem like rational guys (all of them are guys).

Or we could just suffer Trump for a couple extra months, and leave the hand grenade in their boat. The senate is in play in that scenario; just imagine the fallout within the party if Trump causes them to lose everything.

Ultimately, that’s what I want. I want the Republicans to suffer badly enough that they, ON THEIR OWN, not only throw the hand grenade overboard, but they also jettison the big-money assholes and foreign powers that paid to put that grenade in the boat in the first place. I want the Republican Party to be so damaged by this that they shift tack and try to be ACTUAL CONSERVATIVES.

If that happens, then perhaps Trump will have made America great again after all.

A Storytelling Conundrum

I have created a setting that is rather bleak, but the people in that setting don’t really know that. How do I communicate that the walls are unadorned, if no one in the room has ever seen an adornment on a wall? They’re just… walls.

A Thing I said to a Friend Recently

“Dude, you’ve crossed the threshold into big data now. It’s a moment where you have to swallow hard and denormalize.”

November 1st, 2019

It has become a tradition for me to post my first day’s NaNoWriMo output to these hallowed pages. This year I’ve got a setting I like very much, and an opening that I can get behind, and little Malika promises to be a handful. But I don’t actually have much of a story figured out yet.

This part works, though, if you ask me, and sets up perhaps a Young Adult hard-sf story centered on a female character.

If it looks familiar, it’s because it’s based on a little piece I did a while back, but from the point of view of the more interesting person.

The Garden

The children walked single-file along the path, gravel cruncing softly beneath their feet. Malika was near the back of the line; only Remi was older than she was. She had walked this same path almost every day since her fourth traditional birthday, at the very front to start with, until Barry had come along and taken her exalted spot. Over the years new kids started at the front of the line and the older kids dropped off the back, to begin their vocational training and take the next step toward adulthood.

She had resented Barry at first, but after years of staring at the back of his curly-haired head, it had come as a shock the day he wasn’t there anymore. Now she followed Abigail’s pony tail.

They reached the half-bowl-shaped depression in the center of the garden, its gently-terraced sides providing seating in the lush grass. The little ampitheater was large enough for the whole clan to gather, but most of the time it was just the children, come for their daily histories.

They filed down the slope, and occupied the first two rows. The ground was cool beneath her, moist to her touch. She pushed her finger into the soil, then raised it to her nose to breathe its life. The garden was the center of her tiny universe.

Malika loved the history stories. It meant time in the garden, with the smells of the soil and the plants and the air heavy with moisture and oxygen. It was a symbol of their weakness, the older ones said, this desire of scarce resources, the drive that had been the undoing of her kind. But Malika didn’t care. She was a mammal, and she liked what she liked.

At the focus of the arc Evie waited for them to settle in, her pale face with that half-smile that almost never wavered. Evie was much paler than most of the children she faced, which was one reason Malika’s clan had traded for her. New Blood. Even now Evie’s belly was starting to grow for the second time. Malika’s family said that this baby was probably going to work out better than Evie’s first one had.

Most days, Evie would open her book of history and tell the children about one of the times a general or an ambassador had made a difference. These were the moments when all the other lessons the children recieved in the sterile classrooms outside the garden, from calculus to psychology, were put in context. When Malika was younger she had revelled with stories of success, tales of clever planning and dexterous adjustment, but now she was more interested in the failures. That was where the true wisdom was to be found. If Malika was going to be a general one day — which she most certainly was — then she needed to learn from the mistakes of those who came before.

Remi, to her right, would not be a general. Remi was smart, but he was a dreamer, and there was nothing in the universe worse than being one of those. When Malika leaned close she could feel his intelligence radiating from him, but he was unable to apply it to anything useful, anything that would justify his oxygen allowance. It’s not that he didn’t try, but his thoughts were often slow to develop. When he reached that thought it was often profound, at least to Malika’s ear, but profundity had little value. If he was better at math he might become a scientist, but numbers were as slippery as ion-repellent lubricant for him, never lining up in the orderly way they did in Malika’s own head. But there had to be some way he could contribute.

Thinking black thoughts, she pushed a little closer to Remi on the soft grass. The moisture from the earth soaked into the seat of her uniform, a feeling she could only know during the history stories.
Except this day, Evie did not open the usual book of history. She opened the Book of Earth. “It is time we remember where we came from,” Evie said in her soft voice.

While the little kids in the front leaned forward eagerly, Malika groaned. Once she too had been eager to learn of Earth, but not anymore.

“It used to be, in a garden like this one, the air was filled with music.” Evie waved her hand and cocked her head, as if she could hear the sounds. “All around were creatures called birds. They were like reptiles, but covered with lightweight, fibrous things called “feathers”. She held up her book so the children could see the illustrations. On one page was a strange creature with a pointed bone for its nose, an insect crushed in its mouth. The bird had its wings outstretched, to show the feathers. The other page showed one of those feathers; it resembled a leaf to Malika’s reckoning. Birds were reptiles that grew leaves and could fly. At least they ate bugs.

“Earth,” Evie said, her voice reverent. “It was a place like no other in the galaxy. A place of such rich variety and vast resources that mammals could flourish and build a civilization. Imagine,” Evie said, gesturing up to the dull metal over thier heads, measured by a grid of lights that emitted a set of wavelengths calculated to match Earth’s sun. “Imagine the sky, like a cieling but far above, blue, but not the sort of blue you can touch. Sometimes water would fall from the sky, and people would dance with joy.”

Malika closed her eyes and took a breath. She had loved that image as a child, she had imagined herself standing under the blue sky as water blessed her, but now she was almost graduated and she could see Earth for what it was: a mythical place. A story you tell the children. And the reason they made it sound so magical was to drive home the real lesson. All the stories of Earth ended the same way.

“No one knows what the music of the birds actually sounded like,” Evie said, her eyebrows sad over that same half-smile. She paused to turn the page of her history book.

“And then the mammals fucked it up,” Malika whispered to Remi. He turned to her, his eyes wide with surprise.

Evie hadn’t heard her. She held up the book again, this time to an image of desolation; trees burning and birds crying in fear as they were immolated. “But we know their music was beautiful. The first histories lament their loss.”

Evie pasted on a sad face as she turned to the next page of her history book. Malika didn’t have to look to know it would show their reptilian saviors.

“Malika.”

She whipped her head around to see Creche Master Willi rise from a bench in the foliage. The children went silent. Evie lowered her book, her eyes wide, her complacent smile forgotten. Willi held out his hand. ”Could you come with me, please?” It was not an idle question. The Creche Master held the power of life and death. It was the same question he had asked Barry.

Remi grabbed her hand without looking at her, but he let go as she stood on shaky legs. You don’t cling to compost.

Malika was having a hard time breathing as her heart tried to jump out of her chest. “Master Willi?” Her throat was so tight she could barely speak. She wanted to look him in the eye but inhaling was about all she could do.

His hand was still outstreatched. “If you could come with me.”

She didn’t have to stumble over anyone to shuffle up the slope to where Willi waited. Just breathe, she told herself. You’re going to be a general. She knew that wasn’t true. Not anymore.
Behind her the others were silent. She reached Willi, and he kept his hand out until she took it, gripping him tight. Her legs wobbled but Willi supported her through that link.

“Am I compost?”

Willi smiled, but it seemed forced. “We are all compost. You know that. Will you walk with me?” He didn’t wait for Malika to answer; he turned up the path to the bulkhead door, her hand still in his. The door opened and they both passed through quickly, allowing it to close again before too much magic leaked out.

The air outside the garden was brittle and cold, and left Malika always a little hungry for more. She followed Willi along a corridor, the deck the same gray metal as the bulkheads, stained here and there where humans were likely to touch. They turned in a direction that led to a door Malika had never passed through. A door to a differet world. No one ever came back through that door.
“Please,” Malika said. “I can be good.”

Willi gave her a sad smile. “I don’t think you can.” As her knees gave way he wrapped his arms around her, lifting her back up, supporting her. “But we’re not here to be good, whatever that means. We have to earn our way.”

They reached the portal that led from Malika’s tiny world to the domain of a star-conquering species. Willi lifted an oxygen tank from a rack by the door an Makila copied him, slinging the gas cylinder over her shoulder and putting the mask over her nose and nouth. “You are about to be judged,” Willi said. “I have told them you show promise. Don’t let us down.”

1

Deadspin, I hardly Knew Ye

It was about a month ago that I read on the pages of deadspin.com how corporate assholes had destroyed Sports Illustrated. There are no more journalists at that respected institution, and actually not even any more photographers. Three months ago Sports Illustrated broke a huge story about an athlete, rape, and intimidation. It was a careful, researched piece of journalism.

That will never happen again at SI. The new corporate masters want clickbait but no actual content. Many staffers — the ones involved with journalism or, ironically, illustrating sports — were let go.

One of the journalistic institutions that railed most loudly about the corporate machine silencing the voices of writers was Deadspin. They seriously do not pull their punches there. They will tell you exactly why your favorite team sucks (technically they are a sports outlet), but they will also tell you why mainstream journalists are so lost when covering a man-child president — looking for a plan when there is none, looking for a policy when the man in charge is incapable of formulating one.

But now Deadspin has fallen to the same corporate bullshit. Their media owners tried to impose a mandate that they only cover sports, and the social issues that were directly related, but to stay away from pop culture and politics in particular. The deputy editor said no, and was fired. Much of the staff quit in response.

This is not small.

Over at ESPN, there has been a slow, quiet purge of columnists who dare talk about race and gender inequality in the context of sports. Although management says they have “clarified” their rules about only talking about politics and race when it is directly germane to sports, it’s pretty much impossible to say that Jemele Hill crossed some invisible line. Her essays were always in the context of sport. But that wasn’t what the ESPN bosses really wanted, no matter what they said. The didn’t want anyone rocking the boat.

Deadspin, if you squint at the name just right, looks like it might have been born to mock ESPN. And up until this week, it was a fearless voice. Boat-rockers one and all. But in the last couple of days, in the wake of mass resignations, many recent “political” articles have been replaced by straight-up sports stories. Three years after Colin Kaepernick took a knee, even the “renegade” media outlets have been coerced to the idea that somehow that athlete’s protest was not related to sports — even if it was a protest about something that touched athletes and their communities directly.

To the writes who quit Deadspin, who have put their livelihoods at risk for a matter of principle: I have an underutilized little server in a bunker outside Las Vegas, Nevada. If you want to fire up Rebornspin, I’ll host you no charge.

2

I’m Doing it Wrong

It is a lovely evening, and I’m enjoying patio life. My employer had a beer bash today, but The Killers are playing and I didn’t reserve a spot in time. So I came home instead, and after proper family greetings I repaired to the patio to do creative stuff. It’s blogtober, after all.

So what creative stuff have I been up to?

Creating a class that extends Event Service Sessions to add calendar server capabilities. (php is about the worst language on the planet for injecting new context-related capabilities into an existing class definition. In other words, php is not friendly to duck punching, or “Monkey Patching” as the kids call it these days.

The linked Wikipedia article completely misses the most common use-case for this practice, in which I want to get a thing from some service and then augment it. But php doesn’t flex that way, so I just have to deal with it.

Which is to say, I’m doing Friday evening wrong. It is lovely out, my co-workers are chugging down the last of their beers as The Killers wrap up. I am on my patio with my dogs, the air finally starting to cool after an unusually warm day. It is nice. You’d think I could find a better use of this time than wrangling with a programming language.

But apparently you’d think wrong.

3

A Mighty Game

Hey, for the two gamers that read this blog, I have a question. Has there ever been a game where the world is quicksand bureaucracy and the goal of the gaming party is to get some on-the-surface-insignificant-but-actually-world-changing policy adopted? Somehow that sounds like fun, given a well-realized bureaucracy.

Frey

Prologue: If you like fantasy, should you read the first volume of this epic? I say “Hell yes!”

The review (two hours earlier):

Frey, by Melissa Wright, is the first installment of a rather long series. Often writers of series will offer the first installment for free to get readers hooked. I am a cheap bastard, and I do enjoy a high fantasy. I decided to give this one a go.

Right off the bat, a small warning sign. There is a prologue, but the action of the prologue actually happens somewhere around chapter four. So… not so much a prologue as a tease (also a time-honored literary tradition).

Mark Twain (I think it was) said (something like) “Start the story as late as possible.” It’s something I consistently fail to do. My Kansas Bunch Colleagues accuse me of “walking to the story,” meaning I have a bunch of stuff happen and then the story actually begins. Having a “prologue” that is actually something that happens not that far into the story strikes me as a way to create an alternate entry point into the narrative, as if the author is aware that the first few pages aren’t compelling enough on their own.

I was happy to discover, then, that the first few pages actually were compelling enough to stand on their own. Perhaps a little more work was needed to make them really grab, but there was plenty enough happening that the artificial tension-upper prologue was not necessary.

Frey is just your typical elf, except she can’t do magic, which makes her not typical at all. She walks around with a big L on her head and she has a special tutor but she’s pretty much hopeless.

Except it turns out that the day before we start reading she got pissed off at some elf-bitch who was mocking her and kinda-maybe did some fully-justified hurtful magic.

When I read that part, I was reassured that there would be no walking to the story. Significant shit started going down even before we join Frey in her world.

In fact, I kind of wish the narrative had started one day sooner. I wish I was there for the teasing, for the avoidance, for the pursuit, and for that moment of anger when Frey turns on her tormentor and everything changes, even if we didn’t know it at the time. It could have been a powerful scene. And anger is one of Frey’s core strengths; we may as well start learning that.

A Mysterious Stranger arrives in town, and Frey is fascinated by him. We’ve read these stories before, and we know what that means. Frey has not read those same novels and will require more convincing. Mysterious Stranger’s name is Chevelle. That took me back for a moment, as that is a name I used jokingly in The Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy. It turns out this name will be the second-least silly name to follow in this entire book.

I think the author was having fun with the names, kind of a nudge-nudge game with her readers, but it was distracting.

So there is traveling, and the assembly of the party, including Steed (see what I mean?) and Ruby, who are themselves interesting, multi-dimensional, and well-rendered.

But here’s the thing that annoys me no end. ALL those people know things about Frey, about her muddled past. (Of course she has a muddled past.) But no one tells Frey anything. Frey, for her part, seems to be working extra-hard to be clueless about the intentions of the others. Information withholding and deliberate obtuseness — two cornerstones holding up a plot that would shrivel and die if you shone a light on it. That’s two stars off for lazy plotting.

One of the two stars I deducted for this sin shall be restored because one of the entourage found a way to circumvent the will of the others, adding complexity to the group dynamic. Then a star removed again for the author not exploiting the schism in the group.

What drives me crazy is that all this obfuscation just wasn’t necessary. And so many cool moments were lost because of it. Consider this modest modification:

“You need to learn to use weapons. Why don’t you give this sword a try?”

Frey takes the sword. It’s not as heavy as she expects. There are runes etched in the metal. “It’s beautiful,” Frey says.

“It used to be yours.”

BAM! That’s a moment. But that moment can never happen because the author is hiding things from the protagonist that even WE know, despite the first-person narrative.

There’s another part where Frey does something… monumental with that same sword. Not monumental in the sense of changing the course of history, but something that should have been personally monumental. Something that doesn’t fit with the image she’s built of herself, yet no identity crisis follows. What a great opportunity to start a personal struggle that could carry through the whole series.

So many annoyances, but. I got to the end pretty quickly, turning my electric pages. There must be a reason for that.

The prose itself is of the “do your job and don’t get in the way” school, not prone to strutting and preening for its own virtue. I can appreciate that. Descriptions and setting are good enough I’d like to know more.

But mostly it’s the ideas in this story that kept me going. Some are the same old tropes I love so dearly, like the rise of the lost and forgotten child. There’s a “let’s turn the myth upside-down” conceit that’s fun. There’s a whiff of elf-eugenics, thrown for a loop by an outside influence. But above all that there is a spirit of rebellion. Fantasy for so long was about defeating the evil, disruptive elements. I like stories where the protagonist herself is a disruptive element. By the end of her story, things are going to be different.

Mechanically, I have issues, but the story has heart and it has behind it an intelligence (that the characters don’t always share).

If you like fantasy, should you read the first volume of this epic? I say “Hell yes!”

Whether you read the second volume is up to you. I probably won’t. But I’m tempted. But I probably won’t.

Feeding the Eels: the end

I know you hate me for walking away when I did. I hate myself even more. Thousands of rounds were unleashed in that hotel, with the cops rushing in the front while the Blood of the Saint rushed in the back. Had Cello been alive, he would have orchestrated things better, reminding them all who it was they actually worked for. Instead the two gangs chewed each other up.

So much shooting, and Alice in the middle. The .45 APC is the opposite of Alice’s favored ballistics. She prefers a tight round moving flat and fast; the .45 is a beachball to her way of thought. But at 10 beachballs per second she could do some damage. I didn’t doubt for a moment that she had the strength to keep the muzzle down as she did what she does best.

On sixth avenue, treasure map in a bundle of laundry on my back, I considered my next move. I didn’t want the treasure, whatever form it took. I didn’t particularly want to live to see another sunrise. Seen one, seen ’em all. I thought again of Meredith jerking and twitching as the bullets found her, as I dove to the side. Maybe she had it right. Go out grandly.

I told myself that if anyone could survive the hotel it was Alice. A week from now she would be giving me the business for doubting her, and I’d be taking the abuse while hoping not to say anything too sappy. A happy ending.

I walked for a bit, hailed a cab, walked a bit more, hailed another cab, and when I got to Jake’s I had nothing except the suit on my back and a few tired sawbucks. I walked the length of the bar and sat on my favored stool, facing the door.

“The usual?” Jake asked.

3

Episode 32: Boiling Blood

A wisp of smoke trailed from the muzzle of Alice’s pistol as she surveyed her handiwork. But someone nearby would have heard the gunshots and would be doing something about it.

Get in the corner and start screaming,” I said.

“I’m not—”

“When they come in they have to see a dame losing her shit. A dame who’s not a threat.”

Alice hesitated. “Do it!” I said as I took the Luger from her hand and bent down to mash it into the mitt of the poisoned bodyguard. Gun and all I hoisted him up and staggered to the nearest window. Pain flared through my shoulder but I ground my teeth and ignored the dizziness that threatened to put me down.

About then Alice started shrieking, mostly incoherent but with occasional phrases. “He shot him! Call the police! Call an ambulance!”

I pushed the dead kid headfirst through the glass and shoved him out in three mighty heaves. Suddenly he was gone, but Alice was just picking up steam.

I collapsed on the floor by the window, sitting in broken glass, just as the door to the room burst open and three heavily-armed men made their entrance. My shoulder was bleeding again, and my hands were a mess. “I tried to stop him,” I said, to a world that felt very far away. Probably no one could hear my lie over Alice’s Oscar-worthy performance.

After taking a half-second to survey the scene, one of the men went to Santiago, the next went to Alice, while the unlucky third was left to look after me. Alice kept it going, probably to annoy them as much as to sell the hysterical-broad angle. She succeeded at both things.

My caretaker was a handsome kid, maybe eighteen years old and holding a Thompson, with the full 100-round drum, a choice that made me assume he was compensating for something. The kid hunched down over me. “I tried to stop him,” I said again.

“No English,” he said with regret. He inspected my shoulder without taking his finger away from the trigger. “You hurt,” he informed me, with a sad expression on his face.

Perhaps my reputation for honesty was simply because no one listened to me.

I fought back the cobwebs and managed to stand. Each second Alice and I were in the room was more likely to be our last. A shrill whistle reached us from the street below; someone on the hotel staff had noticed a corpse.

I staggered toward the door. “Come on, toots,” I said. “Before they get away.”

The gunmen exchanged looks, apparently none of them were in a position to make important decisions. “Wait,” one of them said. “Boss coming.”

“The guy threw the painting out the window,” Alice said, managing to regain some of her composure. “Mr. Lowell needs to go after them.” She was met with stares. “Painting! Window!” she shouted, with an edge of hysteria returning to her voice. “No time!”

Whether they understood or not, they didn’t shoot me as I walked toward the broken door. “You too, toots,” I said.

“I can’t go out like this!” Alice said. “You go. I’ll change and come after you.”

“The boss—” I started.

“Go!” she waved me toward the door. “I’ll deal with him. But you have to find the painting! Now hurry!”

I moved faster and I was out in the hall. At the far end the elevator showed that it was on the way up. I went the other way as quickly as I could and found the stairs. Another dizzy spell threatened to hasten my descent, but I kept my feet under me and breakfast in my stomach and got to the ground floor without incident. The lobby looked busy but I slipped out a fire door into the alley by the hotel.

I turned toward 5th and found it crawling with cops, jacked up and ready to shoot anything that looked suspect. Quietly I reversed course in the alley and decided to take my chances through the alleys to 6th.

I’d taken maybe five steps when something from above nearly hit me. I jumped aside when the bundle hit the pavement with a loud wooden crack. I looked up but all I saw was bricks and windows. I looked back down to discover a splintered wooden box tied with a bedsheet between two hotel pillows. The box was shattered, and the picture’s frame was banged up, but I didn’t stop to inspect the goods; I scooped up the bundle and got the hell out of there.

Whatever window this had fallen from, it was not one from our suite. Alice was resourceful.

As I moved toward the back of the hotel I wrapped the bundle better with the bedsheet. Just an ordinary man taking his laundry for a walk.

I peeked around the corner at the back of the building. The hotel had a loading dock back there, and it was a beehive of activity. There were two long, black limousines and a few other sedans, and a lot of angry men with guns. The Blood of the Saint, in full force, mad as hornets. I had gone to the back of the building to avoid attention, and so had they.

As they moved about their anger was a tangible thing; a blood-red haze I could almost see that filled them with the need to kill.

I was about to turn back toward the front of the building when from some undefinable place above us the muffled staccato of a Thompson echoed among the buildings in a series of short bursts, followed by continuous fire for at least five seconds, then bursts again. Perhaps two of them were firing, maybe more; it was difficult to tell.

On the loading dock orders were shouted, and most of the men charged into the building as glass fell from shattered windows above. While they were moving so was I; I made it across the service street into the alley on the far side. Ahead I could see the busy street that was my best hope for salvation.

Behind was Alice. I wanted to go back for her, but I couldn’t even slow down. The shooting had stopped, as far as I could tell, which meant either she was dead or about to face a very unpleasant interview, which would probably end with her being dead.

I couldn’t remember ever feeling so alone.

 

Tune in next time for… The Kiss of Death!

1

A Grammar Question

A question that will start with a rant. American sportscasters, who understand that “team” is a singular noun, will say, in reference to a basketball team, “The team is ready for the season.” Because they are referring to a single, specific team.

But those same talkers will say of a Soccer club, “The team are ready for the season.” As much as England gets its collective nouns wrong, it is offensively pretentious to suspend grammar when discussing something related to the old world. What the heck, why not just speak Portuguese when talking about soccer?

*deep breath*

Anyway, I’m here to discuss grammar with numbers. Recently I wrote “there is a bazillion power poles…” I read that a few times, uncertain. “There are a bazillion…” sounds more natural, and that’s probably my answer to my question. Eventually I changed that episode.

But “there are bazillions” is one thing, “there is a bazillion” is another. How many bazillions? One. A bazillion. By that logic, “There is a bazillion power poles” is correct. It just doesn’t ring right. Perhaps “There is a bazillion <preposition> power poles.” That reads better, but there’s no simple preposition that makes sense there. “There’s a bazillion of them dang power poles” certainly reads well.

I’m pretty sure the presence of a prepositional phrase should not affect the verb of the sentence, which backs up the “there is a bazillion” argument.

It just sounds wrong sometimes, is all. Can anyone supply the Ultimate Grammar Truth?

1

Sometimes it’s not so Good when People are Happy to see You

“There he is!” both my fellow engineers said as I walked into the office this morning. I knew right away that this was not going to be the Monday I expected it to be.

“The database is down,” my boss said before I reached my chair. “Totally dead.”

“Ah, shit,” I replied, dropping my backpack and logging in. I typed a few commands so my tools were pointing at the right place, then started to check the database cluster.

It looked fine, humming away quietly to itself.

I checked the services that allow our software running elsewhere to connect to the database. All the stuff we controlled looked perfectly normal. That wasn’t a surprise; it would take active intervention to break them.

Yet, from the outside, those services were not responding. Something was definitely wrong, but it was not something our group had any control over.

As I was poking and prodding at the system, my boss was speaking behind me. “Maybe you could document some troubleshooting tips?” he asked. “I got as far as the init command, then I had no idea what to do.”

“I can write down some basics,” I said, too wrapped up in my own troubleshooting world to be polite, “but it’s going to assume you have a basic working knowledge of the tools.” I’d been hinting for a while that maybe he should get up to speed on the stuff. Fortunately my boss finds politeness to be inferior to directness. He’s an engineer.

After several minutes confirming that there was nothing I could do, I sent an urgent email to the list where the keepers of the infrastructure communicate. “All our systems are broken!” I said.

Someone else jumped in with more info, including the fact that he had detected the problem long before, while I was commuting. Apparently it had not occurred to him to notify anyone.

The problem affected a lot of people. There was much hurt. I can’t believe that while I was traveling to work and the system went to hell, no one else had bothered to mention it in the regular communication channels, from either the consumer or provider side.

After a while, things worked again, then stopped working, and finally started working for realsies. Eight hours after the problem started, and seven hours after it was formally recognized, the “it’s fixed” message came out, but by then we had been operating normally for several hours.

By moving our stuff to systems run by others, we made an assumption that those others are experts at running systems, and they could run things well enough that we could turn our own efforts into making new services. It’s an economically parsimonious idea.

But those systems have to work. When they don’t, I’m the one that gets the stink-eye in my department. Or the all-too-happy greeting.

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The Double-MacGuffin

A lot of stories are based on people competing for something. In many cases, what they are competing for is far less important than the competition — as long as the object of competition is important to them.

It might be a glowing thing in the trunk of a Chevy Malibu or it might be the contents of an ice skate bag. All that matters is that everyone in the story is willing to kill to get it or die trying.

But then there’s the Double-MacGuffin. This is a story where people are competing not for the thing, but for the thing that will tell them what the real thing even is, and perhaps provide access to the actual MacGuffin.

For the record, I just coined Double-MacGuffin, and in the annals of literature, when they discuss Double-MacGuffin stories, they will mention this humble blog episode in the “quaint backstory” part of their analysis.

It would be easy to confuse a race-for-treasure-map story as a double-MacGuffin, but that’s not the case at all. Even if the treasure is vague and MacGuffin-like, the map is not. It’s a competition for a well-defined thing that leads to an undefined thing. That’s a single-MacGuffin plot right there, bunky. To make it a Double-MacGuffin, the map itself has to be something so inscrutable that it can never be defined.

The characters in a Double-MacGuffin story are fighting to find the question, because they know the answer to that question is important.

I’m dancing around a story right now that wants to be a double-MacGuffin. And that’s actually not so hard, until you try to end it.

On Television right now, Lodge 49 is the perfect Double-MacGuffin story. An artifact that may or may not exist but everyone wants can provide access to something… undefinable. While the characters chase the artifact, the “undefinable” isn’t afraid to elbow people in the ribs. It’s beautiful.

Locally, Feeding the Eels has stumbled into that world, and is having a good time. And The Quest For the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy is an archetype of the double-MacGuffin trope.

Yeah, I put my writing into the paragraph right after mentioning one of the best-conceived television shows I’ve ever seen. But Eels has the Double-MacGuffin going, and that’s all right.

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Episode 31: Final Offer

A Brief Re-introduction:

Feeding the Eels is a story I used to add to occasionally here at MR&HBI. The process was simple: Write an episode in 90 minutes, leave a title for the next episode, and don’t plan anything. The prose is spontaneous and recreational, occasionally clever, and does not aspire to the lofty title “literature”.

As time passed I regularly began to break the 90-minute rule, but to this day I start writing with a title and no idea what to do with it. In fact, I never went back and even read what had come before.

Until now, of course; it’s been far too long for me to remember more than the biggest events in the narrative. I can see why I stopped when I did, too. I left myself quite a little humdinger of a situation.

You probably want to start from the beginning, or perhaps Episode 2. (Episode 1 was an entirely different exercise, and I will be rewriting it.) Anyway, you can find it all here.

I moaned softly and sat up, lifting my hat off my face and tossing it onto the overstuffed chair that sat next to the couch that had been my bed for far too little time.

The knock came again. Gentle, patient. Surely aware that someone in my situation might be inclined to put a bullet or fifty through the wood of the door rather than answer politely. It was the sort of knock that said that whatever I did, there would be another knock, and next time it wouldn’t be so polite.

Stepping softly I slipped the painting and its box into a drawer in the bureau. The precious pieces of paper that had traveled with the map went under a sofa cushion.

Another knock. “Hold your pants on, sunshine,” I called out. I didn’t have to feign fatigue and annoyance. I slipped the little Walther into my suit pocket and trod more heavily toward the door, remembering that bullets could also pass through it in the other direction.

Civilized behavior carried the day; I opened the hotel room door and nobody shot anyone else. Two men stood there. Spaniards I had met before. The older of the two, his olive face topped by thick black hair going gray at the temples, was heavier, but still fit. The younger was not holding a gun, but was certainly ready to produce one if things got unfriendly.

“That was quick,” I said. I stepped aside to let them into the room.

The older man smiled as he walked slowly into the room, casting his eyes around almost casually. “We own this property. It is fortunate for us that you decided to live it up for a little while.”

I wondered if “live for a little while” was a threat.

“Your partner is also here?” He asked, though he certainly knew the answer.

“Hello, Señor Santiago,” Alice said from the doorway to the bedroom of the suite. She was wearing a silk robe with the initials of the hotel emblazoned on the breast, loosely tied around her narrow waist. Both her hands were empty. “It’s good to see you again.”

Santiago smiled. “Indeed, Miss Alice. I am pleased to see that you are healing from your wounds quite nicely.”

“Thank Dr. Mendez one more time for me,” she said.

Santiago nodded and turned back to me. “And how is your lovely employer?”

I made my way back to the bar. “I’m currently between clients. Can I offer either of you gentlemen a drink?”

Santiago nodded slowly. “Then what I heard is true. A Gin and Tonic would be refreshing. He glanced at my arm and smiled ruefully. Although please don’t trouble yourself. I can—”

“No worries,” said Alice. She glided to the bar, silk flowing behind her. “If you learn one thing working for a detective, it’s how to make a good G&T.”

Santiago studied her for a moment. “You seem… taller this morning.” In all honesty, I had to agree.

She flashed him a red smile over her shoulder as she set to making the drink. “I’ve been trying to improve my posture.” I suspected that perhaps she had instead been hunching down all along.

“To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit, Mr. Santiago?” I asked.

He looked at me with mild reproach. “Let us not play games, Mr. Lowell.”

“I just want to hear you say it.”

He sighed. “You have something that belongs to us. A painting.”

“I see,” I said. “I do have one of those. How do I know it’s yours?”

Alice arrived with a Gin and Tonic for Santiago, a soda water for the other spaniard, and then she retrieved a whiskey for herself. Santiago accepted the drink, looked at her, and smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry,” he said, and handed his drink to his retainer. The younger man took a sip.

“I’m hurt,” Alice said, but there was a hint of playfulness in her pout.

“You know how it is, Señorita. Guillermo would be terribly upset with me if I didn’t let him protect me.” His smile became less sincere as he turned back to me. “The painting was stolen from my people. It was entrusted to a humble museum that contains many relics that speak to the history of The Blood of the Saint.”

“What saint is that, anyway?” Alice asked.

Santiago chuckled. “Her full name is complex, with decorations and filigrees, but when she was alive, she was called ‘Mireia'”.

“A Catalalonian name,” Alice said. She moved to the couch and sat, inviting Santiago to sit next to her. I moved my hat and occupied the overstuffed chair. I gestured to the wooden chair by the desk and looked at the quiet visitor. He nodded and sat.

Santiago continued. “Yes, We are of Catalunya. I try not to take offense when Americans call me a Spaniard.”

“I’ve not heard of a saint named Mireia,” Alice said.

“Rome is corrupt,” Santiago said. “Mireia was a saint. She was a poor girl with a terrible affliction. She could speak nothing but the truth. Naturally that led to horrifying consequences. There are few who revere souls like that any longer.”

“She sounds like Charley,” Alice said. She stood. “Another drink?”

“Please,” Santiago said, handing her his glass. The he stood also, and then the rest of us. “I wonder. May I see it?”

“It’s intact,” I said. “But let’s not play games. Before I put that thing in your hands we need to discuss terms.”

Santiago scowled. “There will be no terms. It belongs to us.”

“You must appreciate the personal sacrifice Alice and I have made to ensure its safe recovery.”

“And what is it you want for helping to make our recovery task more difficult, Mr. Lowell?”

“More difficult? Without me, that painting would be in the hands of someone much less reasonable than I am.”

“What is it you want, Mr. Lowell?”

“Your handshake.”

Santiago hesitated. “What?”

“You shake my hand and tell me that we’re friends, that on the Blood of Saint Mireia, who could tell no lie, our business is finished. And I promise, based on my apparently-hilarious honesty that no word of this ever reaches anyone else’s ears. And then we’re done, and the painting is yours, and we live our lives.”

Alice had the next round ready; she put a fresh Gin and Tonic and a Seltzer into the quiet one’s hands. After he sipped the cocktail and nodded, she took it from him and handed it to Santiago. When all that was finished she grabbed our drinks. Whiskey for me and it looked like a Manhattan for herself. Finished serving, she sat, and awkwardly the rest of us sat as well.

Santiago studied his drink, and took a sip. “It is a good offer,” the Catalan said. He thought for a moment. “I wish I could say yes. However…” He turned to his bodyguard in time to see Guillermo twist in agony and fall from his chair, foam escaping the corners of his mouth, his eyes wide as he suffocated on his own blood.

Alice had a gun, her Luger 9mm, and now it was trained on Santiago’s chest. She looked at him with sadness. “You say you worship the saint, you say you respect truth, but you are the one with the knife, cutting out her tongue.”

Santiago slowly raised his hands. “Truth,” he said, “Doesn’t exist.”

“What a sad view of the world you have,” Alice said. She pulled the trigger and her gun spat, and I tried to shake the ringing in my ears as Santiago slipped off the sofa and bled on a rug that his people apparently owned.

“That may have been a mistake,” Alice said.

 

Tune in next time for… Boiling Blood!

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