A New Superhero

During my travels in the US I actually watched TV a couple of times, and one show I saw was about cephalopods. You’ve got your octopuses (if you want to get all snooty, don’t uses ‘octopi’, that would be a Latin plural on a Greek word. ‘Octopi’ is false erudition. The formal plural would be octopodes, with the accent on the top. But I digress.), your squids, and your cuttlefish.

In this television show they had some mind-boggling footage of cuttlefish, which have developed some amazing system that gives them muscular control over the color of their skins. They flashed colors and patterns across their bodies, sometimes one pattern on the side with the female (everything’s cool, baby), and an entirely different pattern on the side with the rival male (back off, chump).

Give fine enough motor control, a cuttlefish could play a movie on his skin.

It wasn’t until the second beer tonight that I considered what it would be like to have cuttlefish skin. Some people are worried about genetic manipulation, that it would lead to frivolous modifications of the human form. I’ve got my shopping list right here, and it starts with wings. Cuttlefish skin is right up there, though, probably even edging out gills and wheels.

Cuttlefish-man the superhero would rock. A master of disguise and ingenious at camouflage, he works out by displaying “tattoos”, then animating them running around on his skin.

I picture a superhero job interview that goes something like: “Cuttlefish-man? What the hell kind of name is that?” The interviewer looks up from the resume he is scannning to discover the chair in front of his desk is empty — until a pair of square-slitted eyes blink somewhere in the air over the back of the chair. Cuttlefish-man reappears (he would have to be bald, I suppose). “That’s what kind” he would say without a hint of smugness.

Science note: while invisibility is impossible (and even if it were possible the invisible man would be blind… Holy crap! what a great moment! The lab accident makes him invisible, but the point is completely meaningless to him because his eyes don’t work anymore! The light passes right through his retinas. It would go something like: *Lab Explodes* “Oh, shit I can’t see!” “Where are you?” “I’m right here but I’m blind, I’m blind!” “But I can’t see you!” “Dude, that’s seriously not funny. Help me!” He would imagine himself the way any adult who lost their sight imagined themselves. As far as his senses are concerned, he is completely ordinary. A blind invisible man would be the best superhero ever — uh, except Cuttlefish-Man, of course, who we’re talking about here…), it is possible to project an image that from a certain point of view is indistinguishable from invisibility.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games for the newest entry in the super-pantheon. Cuttlefish-man has inherited the shy, retiring nature of his namesake, which makes it awkward when he has to work naked. Bruce Wayne is bugging him all the time for skin samples, so he can develop his own “cuttle-suit”. He is awkward around women, worried that he’s going to light up like a billboard when she leans toward him over the table. That doesn’t actually happen — or, at least not very often — but his ears turn awfully red.

Late-Night Musings

It’s one of those times, right now, when you see things and they seem somehow more significant, tied, in some intangible way, to a deeper pattern, some kind of secret that’s almost within reach but skitters away whenever you look directly at it. Those hints, those glimpses, could be anything, and in the end are nothing.

There are two marks on the doorway leading into the kitchen, one labeled “day”, the other, a centimeter below that, labeled “nite”. They are above me as I walk past, an artifact of the Soup Boy days, an empirical resolution of a debate with his girlfriend. Yes, you really do wake up taller than you go to bed. I knew that from adjusting the mirrors in my car twice a day (I do like to have the glass just right), but there they are, the two heights of Soup Boy. I wonder, if you measured carefully enough, if you would discover that gravity is winning. I wonder if the night is a short victory but we never make up the ground we lost the day before.

But it’s not gravity that’s the enemy, now that I think of it. Gravity just wants me to fall, it pulls on all of me equally. That’s what orbit is, not a lack of gravity but a constant falling, without ever hitting anything. It is not gravity that is crushing me, but the ground pushing up against my feet.

Before getting up to look around the apartment, finding things I’d stopped seeing long since, I caught up a bit with back podcasts of Writer’s Almanac. I tend to listen to them in bunches when I’m in a mood like this one. Poetry is always better when you feel adrift, when the Big Mystery is teasing you.

Earlier I spent the evening working on a bit of prose that I really shouldn’t be spending time on. It’s self-indulgent, pretentious prose, which is certainly pleasant to write, but I got no time for that kind of shit. (Except, of course for this blog.) It’s an odd marriage of a favorite anecdote of mine and some of the thoughts thrust upon me by Lost in the Cosmos.

The anecdote:

I was sitting in a café listening to two writers talking together. Also present were a couple of college students, female, obviously very impressed by finding themselves in a foreign city in the presence of Actual Artists, who were having an Actual Discussion. I sat a little back from the table, not commenting and at one point I chuckled to myself at something one of the other writers said. The girls sitting next to me looked at me quizzically; no one else seemed to notice the joke.

I leaned back further and said, “They’re not listening to each other. It’s two monologues.” She turned her ear back to them and realized that her Actual Artists were really just talking at each other. No information moved in either direction. She smiled and we shared the joke, feeling vaguely superior to the others at the table.

In that girl’s view, she was in the presence of Actual Artists, and some Other Guy, one who was mysterious, not a talker so obviously a thinker, one who saw through the games of the Artists, a man of penetrating insight. Was I also a writer? Why was I there? With a little chuckle I had gone from being unnoticed to being the towering intellect of the little meeting.

I was also the only one not hitting on the girls. I would have, believe me, but I couldn’t figure a way to do that without becoming part of my own joke. In the end it was pride that stopped me.

So the story I wrote is based on that, loosely. I was asking myself, “what if I actually was like the Other Guy the girl imagined she was sitting next to? What might have happened next?” There are some good bits in the scene (and some pretty lousy ones), although the characters surrounding the guy are far more interesting than the guy himself. That feels about right.

As I write this I hear the rumble of the night tram in the distance, cautious as it passes over the switches at Starostrašnická. I wonder who’s on it right now, where they’re coming home from. I wonder if they will remember this night, or would prefer to forget. I wonder if they are lonely.

Grundwig (A Gargoyle Cop Story)

Intro

We see a gothic rooftop silhouetted against a setting sun. There are fanciful stone gargoyles around the perimiter, in silhouette. As light fades the profile of an extra gargoyle appears. We move closer until we see his brooding face as he looks out over the ancient city.

My name is Grundgwig. I guess you could call me a cop.

Move in, show from the other side, now silhouetted against the moon, the spires of the ancient city arrayed beneath.

I work the night shift.

Cut to: a manhole cover rattling, a jet of steam escaping.

Grundwig raises his head, listening, smelling – something is wrong. He leaps from the cathedral to a neighboring building. Nimbly he bounds through the night, unnoticed by the shadowy, indistinct figures of the humans below.

The manhole cover slowly rises, revealing a wickedly-taloned hand and a pair of glowing eyes. There are no people in the cobbled street. The demon begins to slink out of the manhole, but Grundwig lands on the cover with his full force. With a crash and a scream from the demon the fiend disappears back into the sewers. Grundwig follows. Battle ensues, breaking pipes and damaging stonework. The demon makes a final desperate lunge at Grundwig’s throat, but he is a spy, not a fighter, and Grundwig eventually gets the best of him. To permanently kill the demon Grundwig eats its heart.

As the rest of the demon corpse turns to goo, Grundwig breathes a heavy sigh.

Things have been busy lately.

The Office – hidden away in vaults beneath the city we find headquarters decked out in a completely gargoyle-like fashion. Everything has a gothic look, and many of the items are unidentifiable. There are gargoyles of every shape and description hanging from cielings, clinging to walls, and their furniture is modified to match.

There is a general bustle in the room, professional if a little on the loud side.

Grundwig is larger than most of the others, and has to push his way through the bustle to his desk. On the way he greets the others by name. He collapses into his chair with a heavy sigh.

“Long Night?” A decidedly hot babe-gargoyle-cop sits on the corner of his desk.

“Hey, Rowena.”

“Hey.”

Grundwig sighs. “Man, I’m looking forward to the short nights of summer.”

“Yeah, me too, so I can listen to you complain about how long the days are.”

Grundwig looks at his desk.

“You OK?”

“Yeah, just got a lot of paperwork to do.”

“Busy night?”

“Ate three.”

Her eyes get round. “Damn, G, you gotta slow down.”

“I’d love to.” He turns to his paperwork.

“What’re you doing later? Heading for the Hole?”

“If I ever finish this stuff, yeah, I guess.”

“See you there, then, maybe.”

“Yeah.”

She hesitates and walks away.

As the sun rises we find Grundwig back on the cathedral, in a contemplative pose.

It will never end.

Grundwig runs his hands over the stony scales on his head.

They come, we kill them, then more come. Sometimes they kill us. I am good at what I do, but it will not end until I make a mistake and my heart is eaten.

A bell tolls behind him, unbearably loud.

“Dammit!” Grundwig leaps up, frazzled, then retreats from the rooftop. “I hate Sundays.”

Chapter 1

A demon furtively walks the ancient streets, keeping to the shadows. Grundwig drops down but the demon dodges, and rolls nimbly away. Grundwig pursues and corners the other.

Rather than attacking mindlessly, the demon cowers, but wields the first weapon we have seen, a nasty-looking knife. “Wait, wait, wait!”

Grundwig hesitates. “You can speak?”

“No, I can’t.”

Grundwig disarms the demon and rears back to tear the its head off.

“Yes! Yes I can speak! What do you expect when you ask such a numb-nuts question? The Maker gives some us more intelligence than others.”

“Huh.” He registers this fact and prepares to tear the heart out of the demon.

“Wait!”

“Why?”

“Don’t you wonder why I’ve been given superior intelligence, and what I’m doing here now?”

“Don’t see how it matters. I won’t believe anything you tell me anyway.”

“So you’re not as dumb as you look. That’s good, that’s good. But don’t you think it would be a good idea to take me back and let your superiors decide what to do with me?”

“No.”

“What? Why not?”

“Because you want me to.”

“I want to live, Einstein. This is why the Maker gives so few of us intelligence. Gives us a chance to reprioritize.”

“How convenient.”

“I’m not pretending to be on your side, Chumley, I’m just buying time. But you could score some big points bringing me in alive. I can tell you things.”

“Like what?”

“Now, if I told you, you’d have no reason to keep me alive, would you?”

“There’s something you don’t understand.”

“What?”

Grundwig pushes his face directly into the demon’s, and grinnes with all his teeth. “I don’t need to score big points.”

“Er…”

“The only thing keeping you alive is the possibility that I will have one less 1066/HST to fill out in the morning.”

“Ah.”

“But I’m getting a little hungry.”

“OK, OK, OK, I’ll give you a free sample. If this don’t make you soil your trousers, I don’t know what will. The Maker is resurrecting dragons.”

Grundwig tears the demon’s heart out and eats it. “Tell me something I don’t know.” he mutters.

1

An exceptionally pretty day.

I woke up feeling sharp this morning, dialed in, ready for anything. The sun was shining brightly through the curtainless windows, so it was just as well that I wasn’t in the mood to sleep in. A stretch and a scratch and I was ready to catch up on just what had happened in the Muddleverse while I slumbered. Good news on that front; the new software release had not exploded, the economy I depend on to feed me just because I did something in the past was still intact, and outside the birds were singing. You can’t ask for more than that.

Nor did I. I sat down to work without even making tea first. I spent some time polishing the software, smoothing out a couple of rough edges that might distract a user from the task at hand. The changes will probably be invisible to the users out there, but that’s OK. Software should be invisible. Today was an effort to apply a little vanishing cream to the inevitable wrinkles.

I had some things to take care of in the hood, so after a while I shoed up and headed out. That’s right. It’s a beautiful day and I put on shoes. Socks, even. (Flashback to when I worked at BinaryLabs: my boss, the CEO, once told me ‘the people coming tomorrow are important, so… wear socks.’ I went overboard and wore shoes. That’s why I was Vice President of Software Engineering.) Here and now, I really need sandals.

I felt especially square as I walked through the park on the way to the post office to pay my phone bill. I had the tunes in, and the Pixies were lifting my gait as I made my way down the long series of steps. About halfway down a group of kids had gathered, their summer hockey sticks carefully stacked. At the focus of their cluster was a giant hookah. A fine day in the park.

Bills paid, lunch eaten (I was saddened to find that I was too early for Saxová Palačnkarna), i headed to the Little Caré near home, my goal to spend the afternoon pounding Czech words into my reluctant head. The endeavor got a lot better when Whats-her-name came on duty. (For the record, I know her name now, and it’s not the same as her name here in the Muddleverse. That doesn’t make either one wrong.) She took an active interest in my czech drills, providing insight and alternatives to unnecessarily formal speech. It took a while to get used to someone looking over my shoulder as I practiced, but it was pretty nice overall. I made up some lost ground today.

Conversation eventually turned to What’s-her-Name’s boyfriend, who now must be called What’s-his-Name, purely for form’s sake. As she told me about her man, her posture changed, and it was obvious she was aching for him on an animal level. It’s crazy how crazy she is for him. Honestly, I’ve never seen such a physical reaction outside the bedroom, and the dude wasn’t even there. Naturally I resent the guy.

Things got no better when we discussed how they met. They are both interested in photography and they met online through mutual admiration of their work. So, the original attraction wasn’t sexual at all. Bastard. What’s-her-Name produced a photo album. “This one’s not very good,” she said, “We have much better.”

She was only half right. There were some pictures in there that were really scarily good. What’s-her-Name is not a classic beauty, but it turns out that in front of What’s-his-Name’s camera, she shows a quiet inner sadness that is the cornerstone of true beauty. In other frames she shows a wildness that makes me laugh. There are other shots without her in them at all, but pack a punch. This guy’s good with the camera. So I spent the afternoon with a fun and friendly girl (It occurred to me to ask her how to say ‘third favorite bartender’, but that is complicated beyond mere language), only to watch her swept away merely exchanging text messages with some other guy. To subsequently discover that said guy is genuinely talented, a demonstrably a big-A Artist, well, let’s just say I hate that guy so much I want to be him.

I’m not him, however, and I’m reconciled to that. Happy with it even, though that doesn’t stop me from being jealous. Shit, what do I have to be jealous of? I’m a guy who spends my life doing what I want to do. I make software. I write. I say hello to the kids with the hookah in the park. My pictures don’t compare to his photographs, but I can see it. I can see beauty, I can see art. Really, what else could I ask for?

Coda: I ended up showing some pictures of my own, which included rock stacks. That put me in a certain frame of mind, and after some spillage of suger I managed the never-before-thought-possible Sugar shaker inverted over another shaker, with another shaker on top! It stood! It was stable! No one was looking. I tried to (subtly) make people look my way, and while my hands were away from the safety position it fell over and made a big mess and that’s all anyone saw. I think there is sugar in my keyboard now. But I had it. Kissing sugar shakers with a load on top. 

What’s-her-Name went out of her way to explain how not mad at me she was for the mess. Here’s where I wish I understood the female dialect.

One Point Friggin’ Zero!

I was in the Secret Labs this morning, floating aimlessly through the glossy, high-tech warren of tunnels and chambers drilled through the rock and metal of Asteroid 2029 as it orbits the distant sun here in this quiet Prague neighborhood, when I made the decision.

“Ship it,” I said to myself, and Jer’s Novel Writer 1.0 was released to the world.

I’ve been working on this thing for a few years, now. One of the reasons it took so long to get to 1.0 is because along the way the growing body of users has been full of ideas, suggestions, and constructive criticism. Some of my favorite features were things I would never have thought of on my own. The long gestation period means that 1.0 is way, way cooler than I imagined it would be when I started out.

Still, it’s about stinkin’ time. One thing that makes version 1.0 different than just another incrementally better beta release is that this one is technically not free. Users have been able to pay voluntarily for a while, and it’s really cool when I get the “You’ve been paid!” message. It will be interesting to see if people’s behavior changes as all. I estimate that I have already earned more than ten cents per hour for coding this thing  (if you don’t count classes, hardware, or any other expenses — let’s not think about that).

It would be sweet to sell enough copies to live off the proceeds, but that seems unlikely, even living here. Maybe if I move to Ukraine…

You know what would be even sweeter? Some day I want to be sitting somewhere in the world, writing my next best-seller when someone looks over my shoulder and says, “Hey, Jer’s Novel Writer! I use that too!” That would be almost as cool as happening upon someone reading a book I wrote.

That’s all the future, however. Today is about hitting a milestone, a big event that could affect my life. Today is 1.0 day. (It’s also Over-Easy Day. Dang, already a doubled-up day. What are the odds?)

Lost in the Cosmos

Warning: Whoo, boy, this episode is long, and pretty heavy. It might even be boring; it’s hard for me to tell. It’s got philosophy and shit like that in it. If you want to give it a pass, that’s cool (there is one funny bit but it’s a ways down there). I don’t want to let you down, though; you came here to read a blog episode and by dammit you should read a blog episode. Here’s a link to a another blog, which at first glance might even be fun. I found it by Googling “cat fluffy poop”.

This is not the sort of book you gobble up in one sitting. It is steak rather than soup; you have to chew each bite or you risk choking. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book explores man as the language-using animal, how that fundamentally alters his relationship with the cosmos by creating a means to name, and therefore redefine, everything. Other organisms have an environment which they act upon and acts upon them. The language-user has a world, a giant network of signs and the things they represent, some concrete, some abstract, and some provably wrong. We have replaced our environment with something entirely in our heads.

Before we go any further, know that the ideas from the book and the ideas the book inspired in my own head are quite entangled here. I’ve made some attempt to separate them, but in the end this is a muddled rambling. It’s what I do.

Not long ago I exchanged messages with a friend of mine who has a child who has recently crossed a magical threshold. The biggest reward for learning to talk is the ability to ask questions. The world expands from the room the child is in to encompass everything, through the proxy of other people who share the same language. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a child that age who was not ravenously curious about the world, and kids like that are fun. Why? What’s fun about responding to an inexhaustible barrage of questions? I’m not sure, but I think maybe it’s in part an echo of that hunger still in everyone, a recognition of the joy that living in a world that is growing at a dizzying rate.

A common question for kids that age is “What is this?” In Lost in the Cosmos, there is the example of a child holding a balloon, and asking the father, “What is this?” The reply is simply, “That’s a balloon.”

To me, thinking about it, that hardly seems like it should be a satisfying answer. Here I hold a mysterious object, it behaves oddly, falling slowly when dropped, making odd noises and POPPING! Holy crap! That scared the shit out of me! Yet when I ask my father “What is this?” and he responds with a sound I’ve never heard before, I am satisfied. No, more than that, I’m excited. That thing is a balloon. I move my lips as I repeat the word to myself. Balloon. Now I know what it is; I can put it in my world. (it was already there, I suppose, but now its handle is simpler and my world is better integrated with Dad’s world.)

There is a difference between “That thing is called a balloon” and “That thing is a balloon.”

OK, let’s take a break from all that and talk about the book. It starts with a short quiz, to prepare you for a longer quiz, to allow yourself to measure your response to the ideas he presents. My first response: Multiple choice questions about subtle and nuanced issues piss me off. Every single damn question I wanted to write my own response. None of his options fit. I think he would be happy to hear I felt that way.

On the preliminary quiz, however, was question 6, which I particularly liked: Consider the following short descriptions of different kinds of consciousness of self. Which of the selves, if any, do you identify with?

Option 6g demonstrates what is good and what is bad about the book (you can skip to the last sentence if you want, I took the liberty of italicizing it.): The Lost Self. With the passing of the cosmological myths and the fading of Christianity as a guarantor of the identity of the self, the self becomes dislocated, Jefferson or no Jefferson, is both cut loose and imprisoned by its own freedom, yet imprisoned by a curious and paradoxical bondage like a Chinese handcuff, so that the very attempts to free itself, e.g., by ever more refined techniques for the pursuit of happiness, only tighten the bondage and distance the self ever farther from the very world it wishes to inhabit as its homeland. The rational Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness embarked upon in the American Revolution translates into the flaky euphoria of the late twentieth century. Every advance in an objective understanding of the Cosmos and in its technological control further distances the self from the Cosmos precisely in the degree of the advance—so that in the end the self becomes a space-bound ghost which roams the very Cosmos it understands perfectly.

Like pretty much every other choice in the the quiz, the damn thing is weighed down with so many presuppositions and conditions that it crumbles under its own weight. Much of the preamble is to establish his assumption that people didn’t feel this way before. He cites lots of statistics (some patently ridiculous, others based on Donahue) to support this assumption.

Yet at the core is a really interesting comment. The last sentence could be the blurb under the title of more than half the things I’ve written. (Home Burn, the second of the Tin Can stories, has the protagonist ready to blow the airlock and become exactly such a ghost.)

Reading this book has been a lot like playing golf. Just when I’m about ready to chuck my clubs in the pond, I hit a really good shot. Just when I’m about ready to put this book down, he says something that really resonates.

Still, the multiple-choice format was getting on my nerves and Percy was tossing the word “self” around in a fashion that seemed to assume mutual understanding where there was none. Then I hit a section about halfway through, an intermezzo as the author called it. He introduced the section by saying it was optional reading, and that it would probably piss off just about everyone; it would be too technical for the average Joe and much too oversimplified for the well-versed in the field. Keeping in mind that learning semiotics from Walker Percy is probably a lot like learning Physics from a Carl Sagan television show, I dove in.

That’s when everything changed. I liked that part of the book. I really, really liked it. I had to stop every couple of pages because it made me think of so many different things. Finally we get to the definition at the crux of the human condition: a sign (a word, for instance), gains its significance in a three-legged interaction. There is the word, the thing it represents, and an interpreter. (I think that’s the wrong word, but it will do. In fact, between us it’s the right word.) That leaves exactly one thing in the whole damn universe that can’t be represented: the interpreter itself. There’s no third leg. In your world, you are the interpreter, and you are the only thing you can’t interpret.

I was talking to a buddy a few years ago, and I said that I didn’t understand someone. His response was, “I don’t even understand me.” I can’t tell you how liberating it was to hear someone say that. Since then, I’ve not bothered trying to understand anyone, least of all myself.

Most people could probably sum me up pretty easily. I can’t. Apparently that’s normal, and leads to a host of problems which can be called the human condition. We can define everything, fit it into our world, live with the contradictions, and everything fits, except one thing. There is only thing we can’t put a label on and fit into the structure of the world as we have encoded it: Ourselves. Thus we are lost in the cosmos.

Personally, I think the triangle bit works well, right up until it crashes against something too complicated. Fundamentally the system we use to describe the world, this language of ours, just plain can’t handle something as massively messed up as the first-hand, inside-the-head knowledge of a human being. Maybe we’ll develop that language some day. It will probably look a lot like math, with a layer of fertilizer and a sprinkling of fairy dust.

Speaking of math, the author cites a time about 100,000 years ago when our organism crossed a threshold, and language was born, and it catapulted humanity in a very short time to ruler of the planet. I wonder if more recently another language was born, more abstract but therefore less limited. I’m sure that mathematics as a language has been discussed, but I don’t know the arguments.

I can certainly agree that man has the ability to apply meaning to events, where any other organism would simply react. (Woman, in my experience, takes this to a level that leaves me baffled. “What did you mean by that?” I try, but can’t come up with any words better than the ones I already used. “I’m tired,” I might say. “What do you mean?” After some thought I respond, “I mean I’m tired.” It goes the other way as well, when she says “I’m tired” I’m supposed to know that means I shouldn’t have ordered the shrimp cocktail.) 

So man has this world that exists entirely in his head, and the only thing that doesn’t fit is his own self. This world is composed not just of what is and what was, but also what might have been and what might be. That’s what turned out to be so cool about the story “First Day” (a tale readers of this blog rescued), the uniquely human ability to ruin a perfectly good time with the knowledge that it will end. The Curse of Imagination, I call it somewhere.

Actually, let me take that back, and in so doing subvert the message of Lost. The day is not ruined by the immanence of night. Not necessarily. In “First Day” it is the certainty of night that makes the day so delicious. We live in an insane world, filled with people doing insane things. There is pain and suffering and death everywhere, and somewhere in the backs of our heads lies the possibility of the extinction of our species. But it was fun getting caught in the rain today. 

Also in that magical middle section of the book Percy discusses the omniscience modern society ascribes to science; that while in almost any field the practitioners of science feel they know almost nothing, the world at large sees Science as a mighty power, and the only reason the world hasn’t been fixed is because… well, the scientists working on my problem are either underfunded or lazy, greedy bastards.

The intermezzo is still disturbingly filled with absolutes (Science and Art are the only remaining ways to transcend the predicaments of the human condition), and there is an assumption that what we are feeling is new to this age. That’s too bad, because the fundamental message of the book doesn’t depend on that. We are lost in the Cosmos, and what really sucks is that we invented the Cosmos we’re lost in.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Czech Heroes

OK, you have your statue of the Good King Winceslas (they insist on calling him Vaclav here), at the top of the main drag here in Prague. There’s Charles this and Charles that, named for a king who pretty much kicked Europe’s ass. Only they didn’t call it Europe then.

Those guys were a long time ago, however, and the Czechs, as far as I can tell, don’t really think of them as being Czech. Who are the Czech heroes?

It should be noted that the Czechs aren’t that big on the whole hero thing, except now the tabloids are trying to change that. There are sports heroes here, built up to be torn down just like anywhere else with a ‘free press’. But we will ignore that unpleasantness for a while.

I’ve lived here for a couple of years now, and I’ve come across two modern military heroes. George Patton is one, the liberator of Plzn and a man who really wanted to get to Prague first but the politicians stopped him. The czechs like to imagine what things would be like had be been given freedom to roll. Obviously he is not a Czech military hero, but people here revere the man.

Then there’s the Good Soldier Svejk (rhymes with ache). I saw a movie about him just the other day. During the brutal battles of World War I, Svejk had one goal, and that was to stay alive. He was lazy, sneaky, conniving, and insubordinate. He recognized that war is the absolute last place where you want to go to the head of the class. I would not be surprised if What’s-Her-Name at the Little Café could not name another twentieth-century Czech military figure.

The second hero I stumbled upon by chance. Last summer, during the World Lying-On-the-Grass-Holding-Your-Ankle contest (some people call it ‘Soccer’ and others ‘Football’, but as for the World Cup I think I’m being charitable here), there was a break between games. Česke Telecom announced they would be showing a documentary. When they announced it would be about the life of Jára Cimrman, the low-key folks at the Little Café cheered. “Turn it up!” one girl called. The national hero was on TV, in scratchy black and white.

In a high-profile nationwide poll, Jára Cimrman was voted the greatest man in Czech history. In the documentary I watched a reenactment of a meeting between him and Gustave Eiffel, while a local scholar told us about modifications to the design of the Eiffel Tower. Without Cimrman, it seems, that tower really would have sucked. A true Czech hero, Cimrman’s greatest accomplishment was never getting credit for his accomplishments.

This country’s favorite modern military hero and the man voted by the nation as the Greatest Czech Ever have one thing in common. They are fiction.

Knowing that, it’s time to visit Vyšehrad. It’s quiet there, but not sombre. It doesn’t take long to see a trend. You are walking among musicians, artists, writers. Names you’ve known for a long time, but seeing those names on tombstones is a bit of a shock. Only now do you realize they were human enough to die. Somehow those names seemed above that.

I am sure that among the memorials lie military heroes, and the Czechs value bravery (well, stubbornness) as the highest virtue. In the cemetery lie the greatest of the czechs who did not simply vanish under totalitarian hands. The Czech pilots who came home after helping win the battle of Britain might have been made heroes but instead were sent to labor camps for sympathizing with the west.

The Czechs had a revolution a few years back, and still didn’t get a war hero out of it; the revolution was peaceful and led by writers and musicians. The Czech national anthem, “Where is my Home?” is frightfully beautiful, and not even remotely militaristic. It was part of the score for a comedy called Fidlovačka, Or No Anger and No Brawl. That their only modern war hero is fiction, and (intentionally) horribly bad at war, makes sense. War is ridiculous, and the Czechs have the writers to prove it.

Thinking of a redesign

I’ve been around the blogosphere for a while now, and I’ve noticed that the ol’ media empire here is starting to look a little dated. There’s a definite “pro” look these days, propagated by the templates available in the popular online blogging services. Some of the hallmarks of the pro look seem useful, like limited width so the eye can comfortably scan text. There’s also a feeling that all the parts are fit together into a nice, integrated, whole.

It made me think about what I would like this blog to look like. In the end, it still won’t have that pro look. The thing I most want to do will not work in Internet Explorer 6, and maybe not even 7. What I most want is an end to rectangles. The ampersand breaking out of its box in the header (unless you are using Crappy Browser 6) has had people asking me “how did you do that”? Making the top of the what’s new box not line up with the top of the sidebar was another somewhat tricky little bit of coding, just to break the lines.

What I’d really like to do is build on the “mad scientist” theme. I’ve got some thoughts on how to do that, but as usual my ambitions far outmatch my abilities. We’ll see, though. I might be able to pull off “slick, high-tech mad scientist”.

I’m curious what you guys like or don’t about the current design. Certainly the most important aspect is readability. That’s what it’s here for, after all.


Design-Mockup.png

This isn’t quite what I was shooting for, but is does have visual appeal (and rounded bits).

Blindsided

A while back I wrote a nice setting. It was a moment, compelling but worthless without a context. I let it sit for a while, then picked it up and clothed it in an idea. It was a good read, a good idea, and I liked it, but it left me unsatisfied. Even as I considered where to submit it, I knew there was something missing.

I sent it to a couple of friends. One, I think, is so busy criticizing utter crap that when she recognized that it was not crap, that was about all she had to offer. The other, fortunately for me, is not constantly barraged for criticism (if word got out how good he is at it, that would change). I sent him the prose and he  sent me back pure gold.

What was missing with this cool moment wrapped in a great idea was a story. My job is telling stories. Maybe the story will teach you something or maybe it will make you think or maybe it will make you chuckle, but in the end, it’s a story. That’s all. Some storytellers touch closer to the heart than others, and they get the Big-A Artist label put on them, but ultimately that just means they are very good storytellers.

It is fiction that separates man from the beasts. (That, and the ability to misuse tools.)

So there I was, inspired, wrapping the chocolaty story goodness around all that intellectual nougat, when suddenly, I find I have to define the nature of death in one easy sentence that won’t interrupt the narrative. Bam. Just like that. Out of nowhere comes the moment that decides the story. It’s off-plot but I like sneaky messages. One phrase.

No better time to break off and write a blog episode. Maybe I’ll pull that one phrase off, maybe not, but this candy bar is going to have crunchy bits. I love my job.

Episode 24: Reunion by the River, part two

Our story so far: Charles Lowell is a private detective in some-time-in-the-past New York. A few days ago he didn’t know how he was going to pay his secretary or even where his next bottle of booze was going to come from. Now he looks back on that time nostalgically. He’s got clients now — several of them — and cash, and not much nope of living until tomorrow morning.

The problem is that his clients all want the same thing, exclusively, and they’re the sorts of people who express displeasure in creative and violent ways. No matter what Lowell does, someone is going to be angry. He already has a broken gun hand and a fresh bullet wound, among other aches and pains. Now it is Sunday evening, and it is time for him to find Lola Fanutti, widow of a crime boss, client, and possibly the person who shot him.

What will happen next? Heck, I don’t know. If I planned this story would there be five different factions who all want slightly different things, people with the same last names fighting on different sides, one character that is massively schizophrenic, and characters who are built up only to fade away again? Nope. This is all about having a good time spewing prose that’s in the classic noir voice. I also rather like the schizophrenic.

To read the entire story from the beginning click here. I’m sure there are some continuity issues, but life is that way.

I opened the door and stepped into the darkened taproom, imagining an arsenal pointed at me as my eyes adjusted. I wasn’t sure who would be there waiting for me, but there would be someone. And there would be whiskey.

No bullets came my direction, just the low murmur of conversation and the reek of stale gin. I was home. When I could see well enough I shuffled past the row of losers and boozers lined up along the bar until I came to my spot at the end, empty and waiting for me. Before I sat I scanned the tables with their odd assortment of punks and schmoes, listened to the low mumbles of deals being made and promises being broken. If the city was a machine then here was the grease, doing the messy job of keeping things moving.

It’s no accident that the table in the corner is in the deepest shadow. The small-time hoods at the other tables knew instinctively that the corner was for only the most serious of business, and most dangerous of businessmen. I couldn’t see who was sitting there, but I smelled lilacs. I sat on my stool. She could wait while I had a drink.

Jake looked over at me, his eyebrows raised, his hand poised halfway toward the top shelf. You still drinking the good stuff? I nodded and he pulled down a new bottle single malt. He poured a tall one and set it in front of me. With my good hand I held the glass to my nose and let the graveyard smell of the peat fill my sinuses.

“So I guess they found you,” Jake said, glancing significantly at my sling and my bandages.

“Who would ‘they’ be, Jake?”

“Didn’t say. They looked like trouble, though. Big guys.”

“Trouble? Yeah, then they found me.”

“The way they looked, I thought you might be at the bottom of the river by now.”

“Nope, still treading water. Anybody come around I might recognize?”

“Just the regulars, and…” he gestured with his eyes to the darkened corner.

I nodded. I’d been hoping to find her here, but that wasn’t going to make it easy. “Pour me another, would you?”

While Jake poured he asked, “Heard you were mixed up in that shootout.”

“You can’t believe everything you hear.”

“Yeah, I guess not.” Jake paused for another moment, hoping for more, then turned back to his other customers. I took a sip and stood, gathering my strength. I felt the eyes of the small fry on me as I walked back to the shark tank.

“It’s not polite to keep a lady waiting.” Lola Fanutti’s eyes were just two sparks in the gloom.

“I’m not generally considered a polite man.” I took a seat opposite her.

There was a moment of silence, then, “that’s it? That’s all you have to say? Not even ‘hello’?”

“Nice to see you again Mrs. Fanutti.”

“Mrs… Jesus, Charlie, what’s got into you?”

“A .45 full metal jacket slug got into me, that’s what.”

“Oh, my gosh!” A bit of Kentucky slipped into her voice. Whether she did it intentionally I wasn’t prepared to guess. “Are you all right?”

“I’ll live.”

She reached across the table and touched my hand where it touched my glass. “Don’t worry, Charlie, we’ll find whoever did this.”

I watched her for a moment. “What makes you think I haven’t already?”

She rocked back in her seat. “What the… you think I did it?”

“I’ve got to consider the possibility.”

“But… after all we’ve been through? No, Charlie, no.” She sounded like she was about to cry. “I could never…” Even as she held back the tears, there was something else growing in her voice. Anger, but not the cold stiletto anger of Lola Fanutti, but the Kentucky heartbreak of Meredith. “Didn’t our time together mean anything to you?”

It meant something all right; I just had no idea what. “Okay, Okay, I’m sorry. I’ve had a bad couple of days. I don’t know who to trust anymore. But I know you didn’t do this.”

Her voice changed again, still the Kentucky girl, but with the hard, cold edge of a killer. It sent a chill through me and I knew that for the first time I was talking to the actual woman, not some facade she erected for the occasion, and I knew she was speaking the absolute truth. It was Meredith Baxter, assassin, who said, “I don’t miss. If it had been me, you’d be dead.”

“That’s very reassuring.” I had meant to be glib, but it was also true. Here was one person who didn’t want me dead — yet.

“It was good, though, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. If I ever meet that girl again I’ll have to buy her flowers.”

Her posture relaxed; I was forgiven. She tapped a cigarette and waited for me to light it, steadying my awkward left hand with her own. She blew the smoke out in a long plume, the smell of tobacco mingling with her perfume, becoming something exotic. She shifted and the light played over the black silk that clung to her like a second skin. I took a sip of whiskey to moisten my throat.

“Who else have you spoken with about this matter, Mr. Lowell?”

“Well, there haven’t been any eskimos, but just about everyone else.”

“Cello?”

“He was onto me the minute I met you.”

“Don’t worry about him. He just wants his cut of any business that passes through here. My in-laws?”

“I promised Paolo that I’d give you to him. I plan to keep that promise.”

“Oh?”

“I am very unhappy with him.”

Meredith gave a ghost of a smile. “I see. You are a clever man, Mr. Lowell. Anyone else?”

“A couple of people I don’t know who they worked for, and some people who call themselves the Blood of the Saint.”

Meredith froze for an instant, then her cigarette resumed its arc up to meet her red lips. “I see. I should have expected that. They might pose a problem.” She stubbed out the cigarette with violence. “Damn Vic! Why couldn’t he just keep his mouth shut? Whoever whacked him, I just wish they did it a little sooner.”

“I heard a rumor he wasn’t dead.”

“I started that rumor. Should have told you. Sorry.” She fished out another cigarette and in her distraction lit it herself. “Who else knows the Blood is here?”

“Not sure. I heard people talking about Spaniards. And Alice knows, of course.”

“Of course.” Her eyes were scanning the room, but I knew she was watching me. “I don’t like her.”

“Don’t be fooled by that meek exterior,” I said. “She’s got the heart of a lion.”

“Oh, I’m not fooled at all. How are you shooting left-handed?”

“Even worse than with my right.”

“Well, I didn’t hire you for your shooting skills, I suppose.”

“Why did you hire me?”

“Would you believe your rugged good looks?”

I almost snorted my whiskey. “No.”

“I’m afraid that’s the only answer I have for you right now.” She thought for a moment. “Except this. You’re still alive. I think that shows I made a good choice.” She lifted her Colt from where it had been resting in her lap and slid me a little automatic from her handbag. “Just try to make some noise and not shoot me,” she said. “It’s time to blast our way out of here.”

Tune in next time for: Reunion by the River, Part 3!

A Day of Coding

It’s a mixed blessing, having a word processor that you wrote yourself. On the one hand, you stand a pretty good chance of having a tool that works the way you do. As I mentioned previously, for me that means having a tool that helps me not forget stuff, and not worry about the details until it’s time to worry about them.

There is a downside. This morning I was thinking that I would much rather write Feeding the Eels episodes using Jer’s Novel Writer than this here blogging software. It’s not a big deal, I can write it there and paste it in over here. The thing is that Eels has special formatting, and setting all that up in the blog software is a pain. When I paste the stuff in formatted the way I want it, the blog software produces some pretty ugly markup that I then feel compelled to repair. Things are better in the new version, but still not as easy as it should be.

What I needed was an XHTML export feature in JersNW. That way all the correct markup will be there already, neatly done my way, and I can paste it in as source code. The blog software can just leave it alone. (Whether it actually will leave the code alone has yet to be demonstrated.) I’d been mulling how to implement that feature for a while now, and well, today was the day. Now JersNW has XHTML export. As JersNW’s biggest customer, the developer really hops to it when I want a feature.

The feature is mostly there, anyway. It has all I need for Eels, but now that the feature is there I have to make it so it’s useful to everyone else, also. Darn those other customers.

Meanwhile, I didn’t actually get any writing done today, and I probably won’t tomorrow as I make the export feature versatile enough for other users. I tried to get a bit of writing in this evening but my head is entirely in the land of logic right now. I would look at the page and I didn’t see words, I saw a word processor. That’s the big downside. I’ve got a confrontation between Felix and Schmidt, a battle of wits and subtle words (Schmidt is an underdog but don’t count him out), and all I can think about is overlapping <span> tags. Then I caught a margin note’s anchor shifting, and that was it.

On top of that, it’s not really a good business policy to add a major feature mere days before the big rollout of version 1.0. But there you have it. That’s how things work here at the Hut.

Ideas

It’s a common occurrence, unfortunately. I will get an idea. “What a good idea!” I say to myself, “that’s a keeper!” Happened just last night.

The next thing that happens is I talk myself out of dropping whatever it is I’m doing to write it down. (This is exactly why Jer’s Novel Writer has margin notes, so I don’t have to drop what I’m doing to jot things down.) Of course, if I don’t write it down immediately all I will ever remember later is that I thought that idea was so good I wouldn’t forget it.

Last night’s idea happened between the Little Café Near Home and home. I was walking, had the idea, and thought “OK, first thing when I get home, I’m writing this down.” “Relax, dude,” another part of my brain said, perhaps personified by a little devil sitting on my shoulder. “There’s no way you’re forgetting this one… uh, what was it again?”

Just like that it was gone.

Hockey World Championship Day

Originally, my subtitle for this episode was “…friggin Finns!”, but you really can’t blame them for doing too well. It’s what they were trying to do.

A few days ago I wrote that it looked like a contest between Russia and Canada. Those who read the comments around here might have picked up that the Finns weaseled their way past the US team in a shootout. Not shocking that the Finns beat the United Statesians, but a shootout? In a single-elimination tournament? That’s just plain nuts. That’s just TV stations wanting to make sure the game doesn’t run too long.

Shootout? pf. It’s not hockey.

So the Finns moved on to face the Russians. It was a good game. I think the Russians were taking the win for granted, but it went 1-1 into overtime. The Moscow crowd was going completely nuts.

Then the Finns scored, and the game was over.

Imagine a balloon filled with gasoline fumes popping without a sound. Whoosh, and that’s all there is. In the aftermath Russian players were staggered, unable to hold themselves on top of their skates.

I was in the wrong city last night. On the TV there were astonishingly beautiful women weeping because their hockey team had lost. A woman weeping over hockey is the second sexiest thing I have ever seen. I fell in love with one woman right there and then, so shattered was she. If you want to review the footage, track that girl down and tell her there’s some dissolute American writer who wants to marry her, go right ahead. But – she was weeping alone! Were the Russian men so caught up in the horror that they were unable to offer comfort, or are beautiful women weeping over hockey so commonplace they merit no consolation? What the hell is wrong with you guys over there? She’s hot! She loves hockey! She’s sad!

It’s probably delusional to think that were I on the scene that I would do any better, but any place where pretty girls weep over hockey is a place I want to be.

So, the Finns won, to set up today’s games. The Russians demolished the Swedes (don’t be fooled by the 3-1 score, it wasn’t that close and the Russians weren’t trying) for third place, and looked bored doing it. The home crowd was quiet. They had not recovered from the night before. The championship game’s not over, but the Canadians are having a pretty easy time with the Finns. How much better it would be, how much more fun, if the Russians were playing and the crowd was in full voice. Canada probably is the best team this year, but I’d give Russia the edge in this place. It would have been a classic. Except the Russians dropped the ball.

The Finns, however, aren’t buying any of that. I’d be praising them as scrappy (but really they’re not), and having good team chemistry (which they do without question), and being everything I like in an underdog, except they ruined my final. On top of that, at least while I write this, the Canadians are skating easy. I’ll forgive the Finns all the other stuff if they make a game of it here in the finals.

Watching the Finns play, I think I can see how they do well against the big teams. They’re pretty good, but I think the Swiss would have their number. Just a chemistry thing.

But man, you should have seen the Russians.

Service with a Schmile

I almost didn’t go in to LCNH last night, I was tired as I trudged up the hill from Saxova Palačiknarna, and a little bummed out. I had spent the afternoon sifting through drifts of prose fragments, searching for ones that deserved another shot at life. Some were stories I’ve attacked several times, others just little fragments with a nice turn of phrase or an unusual voice. I also made a little list of the stories that are ready to get into print.

When I was done I rocked back and said, “That’s it?” Not a lot to show for all the years spent staring at this here keyboard. No novel published, practically nothing sold, and just a pile of random fragments in the hopper.

I knew if I went home I would probably just end up wasting the evening puttering on the Internet, so as I passed the door to LCNH I decided to make one more go at productivity. I’m glad I did.

I stepped inside and What’s-her-Name was relaxing at a table reading, and there was no one else in the place. I ordered tea and settled in to maybe get some work done. It was Friday evening, so I knew that I would not have the place to myself for long. Still, I entertained thoughts of a bit of conversation with What’s-her-Name. The change of scenery had done my brain a bit of good, however, and I was soon absorbed in my work.

It wasn’t long before another guy showed up, sat at the bar, and began talking amiably with What’s-her-Name. I was a little jealous, I must admit, but I reminded myself that she’s been having conversations with guys for a long time now. Meanwhile, service was getting friendlier.

It wasn’t nearly as friendly for me as it was for the next guy to come in. He got a nice big kiss. Hm. So there you go, then. With the next cup of tea, What’s-her-Name brought questions. She was curious about what I was up to, where I sent my stories, and so forth. We chatted a bit and then she went back for a bit of face-sucking with her sweetie. Any shyness I might have attributed to her was quite absent now. In fact, her ardor for her boyfriend seemed to be growing steadily as the night wore on.

Meanwhile the place was filling up. I was doing pretty well with the writing (or more accurately thinking — not a lot of typing going on), so I held fast in my corner and tuned out the kids playing cards and drinking more than they should. The caffeine was starting to make me vibrate with an audible hum, however, so I thought a nice beer would take the edge off and prepare me for an early bedtime. What’s-her-Name returned with the golden beverage and placed it on my table with a little faux-trumpet fanfare. Brr-pr-pr-pr-pr-pr-pr-brrr!

I have, in all my time in Czech bars, never seen a bartender or waitress do anything remotely like that.

What’s-her-Name hesitated and looked at me. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m a little drunk. I’m drinking wine.”

I stayed until closing time, which luckily for all concerned is pretty early there.

The Mankind Show

“The World’s a Stage, and we are merely players,” Shakespeare said (or something like that).

What if that’s true? What if we’re just some big puppet show God’s putting on for the kids in his neighborhood? So if those kids can see all six billion of us running around like ants in a rainstorm, are any of them watching you? Most of us would just be extras, milling around in the background, maybe not even on the same continent as the interesting people.

When we die, what happens next would probably depend on whether we had a fan club or not.