The Art of Roving Mars

I was poking around over on gizo’s blog this morning. It’s been a while since I dropped by over there, but every time I wander through there’s something interesting going on. This time it was a You-Tube clip he had posted that caught my imagination.

Before you go look, consider this: NASA has done a lot of work to design the best possible machine to wander the surface of mars (with the constraint that it must not weigh very much at all). They’ve done a pretty good job, judging from where I’m sitting; little six-wheeled buggies have managed to poke around the surface of the red planet and find some cool stuff.

The Mars rovers are solar powered. What about wind? There’s a lot of that stuff up there. What if you could make a large machine that could step over obstacles and was powered only by wind? How far could it go?

OK, now go look at gizo’s blog, and the video. [I was, in my minutes of research, unable to figure out how to link to a specific episode over there.] Imagine something like what you just saw in that video, but able to crawl over boulders and hunker down when the wind got too dangerous. Gnarly.

The current Mars rover design is encumbered by a mandate that is must be a scientific instrument. For the Mars Wind Walker ‘Amelia Earhart’, I say screw that. Build it as well as you possibly can, throw it up there, and turn it loose. The romantic in me says don’t even include a transmitter. It might be centuries before we find it again, if ever, but we’ll know it’s out there. For the colonists of Earth’s dusty brother, there will be a ghost story waiting for them when they arrive.

Note that in the time since I posted the link above it’s become rather not-helpful for finding the video. I searched and all I could find is this much less poetic look.

Czech word for the day…

The spelling may not be quite right, I’ve not seen it written down. The word means ‘wallet’, as in: Zapoměl jsem mou penižinku, or in English, “I forgot my wallet.”

Some lessons stick better than others. More context, you might say.

2

The Simpsons’ Big Movie

In my sublithic state I was unaware until a couple of days ago that there was a big movie version of The Simpsons coming out. Last night some of the folks I know took the initiative and put together an outing to go see this epic of the adventures of yellow-skinned, four-fingered people.

For large American movies, it’s pretty easy to find a venue playing the film in English, but this showing was unusual in that there were no Czech subtitles. The Simpsons are popular here, but this theater decided to cater exclusively to English-speakers.

There is a point near the beginning of the flick where Homer points directly out of the screen and says something like “Suckers! You’re paying to watch what we usually do for free on TV!” I thought of letting the review stand at that, but in fairness I have to say that there are quite a few television episodes that are funnier than this movie was. I enjoyed the movie, don’t get me wrong, but the humor density was less than on the TV show — twice the funny in four times the space.

Tool Recommendations?

Over at WritersMarket.com they have a database tool to help you track what you’ve submitted where,  what its status is, and what’s on your to-do list, submissions-wise. It is integrated with their listings, which makes it particularly easy to track submissions to markets who list there.

I was a big fan of the tool before they upgraded it.

Now the tool is much less useful than it was before. Gone are quick ways to list information by status, to sort and filter the information in a number of ways. Nowhere I can find the ability to track submissions to markets not listed with them. The upgrade is cumbersome and unwieldy, and is frustrating enough that it is turning into yet another bit of resistance when I resolve to get more submissions out. It’s still better than anything else I’ve tried — if I had first experienced it in its current state I’d probably think it was the bee’s sneeze, but I just get so annoyed when there’s something I could do before that I can’t now.

Of course, what I really need is an intern. He or she could use whatever system they wanted to track things, as long as it was a system. I already have help with the printing and mailing, but every agent wants something slightly different, and now I’m not even sure which non-WritersMarket-listed agents I’ve already sent stuff to.

The problem with the intern idea: who? Who in their right mind has a few hours a week to comb through listings, create to-do lists for an easily-distracted guy and then cry in quiet anguish as that same muddled guy doesn’t get them done? It doesn’t help that I can’t afford to pay an intern anything. The only demographic I could come up with was someone hoping to break into the agenting biz and wanting to get a good look at things from the author’s side while learning about submissions, formatting, and slush. Of course, those people could learn more, make better contacts, and so forth, by being an intern to an actual agent. So, not much hope there.

I suppose there might be someone who wanted to become an agent who, upon reading my lyrical and transporting prose, after coming to identify with my characters so deeply it will affect their child-naming strategies in years to come, might want to be my intern to ride my coattails in my inevitable meteoric rise to greatness. Yeah, that could work.

Finding someone with the right combination of delusion and desperation, yet is still together enough to pull off the job, seems like a long shot. I’m probably stuck with software, which brings me (at last) to the point of this post. Are there any writers out there with a submission-tracking tool they like? I’d write one myself (how hard could it be?), but I’ve already got a word processor to maintain.

Unless it was integrated with the word processor…

AiA: White Shadow – Episode 5

Our story so far: Allison is an American high-school student who has transferred to a private prep school in Japan. From the very start things have been surreal. There is something fundamental about the way she is regarded by her fellow students – even those that befriend her – that baffles her.

Meanwhile, there is a computer virus running around, called White Shadow, that somehow infects the minds of computer users. Allison’s “uncle” seems to have a role in its spread, or perhaps he’s just another victim.

Seiji has just told his friends (a self-appointed committee bent on determining what Allison’s super-powers are) that the Wacky Old Monks have revealed to him that his troubles are just beginning.

If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

“You spoke to the Wacky Old Monks?!” Even Kouta was shocked by this news.

“It’s not such a big deal,” Seiji muttered. “They’ll talk to anyone who’ll listen.”

“Yes, and there’s a reason no one listens to them.”

“They caught me by surprise, all right? They snuck up on me.”

“They singled you out? They really wanted to talk to you! They must think you’re special.”

Special was the last thing Seiji wanted to be, particularly when there was a transfer student nearby.

“What did they say?” asked Kaneda.

“Nothing that made any sense.”

Kouta took control again. “What did you mean by chapter one?”

“I don’t know, it’s just something they said. But the way things are going…”

“What?”

We’re going to need more than one backup city, Seiji didn’t say. “I just don’t like it, is all. This girl’s trouble.”

“How can you say that?” Kaneda said, “She has to be the most benign transfer student ever. Sometimes I almost believe her when she says she’s just here to study.”

“You’ve been reading too many wild stories.”

“Well, maybe she’ll save the city rather than destroy it.”

“She doesn’t look like the city-destroying type,” Kouta concurred.

“They never do.” Seiji wasn’t really concerned whether the city was destroyed or saved. When demons dropped out of holes to the next dimension, or killer robots descended from space, or the experiment in the secret lab under the school went horribly wrong (or if she was the experiment), there would be destruction, suffering, dislocation, uncertainty. Whether she was fighting to defend the city or destroy it was immaterial. What was material was that those close to the transfer student would be swept up in the maelstrom, to endure crushing personal trauma as well.

“Face it,” Seiji said. “None of us have ever seen a transfer student before, but they always seem completely innocent before the bombs start to fly. I’m sure the students in Kyoto 4 last year all thought that transfer student was perfectly harmless as well.”

“Can I walk you home?” Kaneda seemed simultaneously to be more fearful of Allison and more eager to be with her.

“Um… I’m going to stay here for a while, I think,” Allison said. “I want to get some stuff done.”

“Can’t you do it at home?”

“It’s… hard to concentrate there.”

“Gosh. It seems pretty quiet there to me.”

“Things are just a little strange, is all.”

“Strange… like how?

Allison pulled her laptop from her backpack. “I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to get some work done.” She opened the laptop and typed a few keys.

“So are you good with computers?” Kaneda asked.

Allison didn’t reward him with an answer right away. She typed a few more sequences in repid succession, logging into the school’s wirelesss network. Kaneda’s eyes bugged out.

“You hacked into the school network?”

“Nah. I need to access the Internet, so I just asked the teacher if I could use his password.” Allison looked up from her work and allowed a ghost of a smile to cross her face. “To be honest I don’t think he even knew what his password was for. He seems pretty clueless.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, how he lectures on even when no one in the class is paying any attention at all, stuff like that.”

“Well, he is a teacher. What else is he supposed to do?”

“Oh, I don’t know… teach?”

“Oh, I see! You expected a clown teacher! Those are pretty unusual here. Do you have lots of them in America? I’d love to have a clown teacher.”

“A clown teacher?”

“Yeah, one of those guys who’s never in class and takes the students on all sorts of dangerous trips and somehow all the students get great scores. It must be great in America if all the teachers are like that. There’s probably only about five of them in all of Japan” Kaneda’s eyes lit up. “Maybe I should transfer to America!”

Allison was speechless.

Kaneda looked downcast. “Yeah, I know. Me, a transfer student. What a laugh.”

“I’m sure you could be a transfer student if you wanted to. There’s—”

“That’s nice of you to say, but be serious. I mean, look at me.”

“I don’t see…”

“Well, I’m a boy, to start with. Who ever heard of a boy transfer student?”

“I—”

“And come on, get real. I’m just an ordinary guy. No one’s going to kidnap me and implant horrible disfiguring superweapons that leave me mentally scarred and unstable. Even if I was a girl I’d be too old for that by now. No, there’s just no way I’ll ever be a transfer student.”

Just when Allison thought they were talking about apples and oranges, he threw in a pineapple. Or maybe a hand grenade. She was saved from answering when her computer cleared its throat.

“She doesn’t understand yet, Kaneda.”

“What the—?” Allison turned and there was her uncle’s face dominating the screen.

“Who’s that?” asked Kaneda.

“That, uh… that’s my uncle.”

The image laughed. “That’s what I was, boy. But you know me by a different name.”

“Oh?”

“Look closely and I’ll show you.”

Allison had a bad feeling about this. “Uh, Kaneda, maybe…”

Kaneda paid no attention. He leaned closer to the screen.

“My name…”

Kaneda moved in closer.

“Is…”

Closer still.

“White Shadow!” The screen switched to a shifting palette of color, seemingly random but hinting at a deeper pattern. Allison recognized it and tore her gaze away, even when she wanted with all her mind to discover the ultimate knowledge promised there.

Kaneda stood, frozen, transfixed, gazing into the screen.

“What an idiot,” the computer said with her uncle’s voice. “I can’t believe he fell for that.”

“What did you do?”

“I showed him the secret. Aren’t you curious what it is he knows now? Don’t you wonder where he is? Don’t you yearn to go there also?”

“No!” Allison said, but it was a lie. “Kaneda! Snap out of it!”

Her uncle chuckled. “There’s no snapping out of it, not for the likes of him. He’s not like us, Allison. He can’t rule the White Shadow.”

“NO!” In anger Allison slammed her laptop closed.

“Aaaaaa!” Kaneda curled into a ball and fell to the floor. “Reset! Reset!” He began to convulse and foam at the mouth. Allison remembered what had happened with Rei in the classroom, when his video game had been taken away. She opened her computer back up to see that her uncle’s face had replaced the colors once more.

“Quick! Bring the pattern back!”

“For you or for the boy there?”

“For Kaneda!”

“Hm… no.”

“But he’ll die!” Kaneda’s breathing was becoming irregular and his eyes were bulging out of his head.

“He would not be of much use to the Institute anyway. He really isn’t terribly bright.”

“Of… use?”

“Surely you don’t think all those zombies are being taken there for a cure, do you? Come now, when does that ever happen?”

“He’s my friend! He was nice to me! Help him!”

“I will help your so-called ‘friend’, on one condition.”

“What?”

“That you look into the pattern for sixty seconds.”

“Then I’ll be like him.”

“No, you won’t. You’re different. Trust me. This is only a taste, a sample. No symbols, no audio, just the moving colors. It’s the only way to save your friend.”

Sixty seconds. What could happen in a minute? She remembered standing in her uncle’s office, surrounded by moving images and sound, being drawn in. There was something down there, calling to her. It understood her, it needed her. Sixty seconds. She could handle that.

“All right,” she said.

“Hey, Tasuki, have you seen Kaneda or Allison?” Seiji tried to keep his question casual. He had been waiting in the diner since class, and it wasn’t like Kaneda to be so late.

Tasuki put down the burger she was eating. “No, not since class. Why?”

“Kaneda was supposed to meet me here after he walked her home, that’s all.”

Tasuki broke out in a big grin. “Ooooo. You don’t think…?”

“No!”

“My, aren’t we sensitive.”

“It’s not like that!”

Ruchia chose that moment to join her friend in the booth. “What’s Seiji shouting about this time?”

“He’s just jealous because Kaneda is off somewhere with Allison.”

Ruchia’s tone was frosty. “Oh, he is, is he?”

Seiji sighed. “Look, I’m not jealous, all right? I’m just worried that something might have happened to them.”

“Like what?” Tasuki asked.

“Who knows? She’s a transfer student.”

“How do you know they’re not off somewhere on a date?” asked Ruchia. “After all, Kaneda is nice. Not like some other boys I could mention.”

Seiji rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on! It’s not like I did that on purpose…”

Tasuki intervened. “There’s something you’re not telling us, Seiji.”

“That’s right.”

Ruchia flared again. “You put Kaneda up to it, didn’t you? He’s being nice to her because you told him to!”

“For the record, I objected!”

“She was so happy that one of you guys was finally being nice to her, and it was a lie! You’re a monster!”

Seiji sighed. “No, he really did like her.”

Did? You think…?”

“I hope not, but you know how these things go.”

Tasuki said, “Oh, Jeeze, Seiji. I’m sorry.”

Seiji nodded. “There is still hope.” It didn’t sound like he believed that.

The Morning After

It is a grey Sunday afternoon here in the Haunted City, a wind that can’t make up its mind which way to blow is shaking the trees and tossing a light rain this way and that. The weather fits my current condition, but this story begins about 48 hours ago, on a warm and sunny Friday afternoon, in the garden of a place I call the Pink Gambrinus Pub.

The Pink Gambrinus Pub has four things going for it: a very pleasant garden, low prices, and two very pretty waitresses. I settled in under the awning, opened up the ol’ laptop, and set to work. Before too long my phone rang. I decided to answer. “What’s up, big daddy?” came the cheerful voice. Angelo is many things, but quiet and subtle are not on the list. I had agreed to help him set up his Web site, so he agreed to come join me later. I turned back to the task at hand.

A text message came in. Another friend, wanting to get together for beers later. I sent messages of my own, trying to set up a meeting over beers to discuss a project. That didn’t work out, but Jose said he would come join me in a while. I turned back to my work, while the waitresses did their best to bring me beers faster than I could drink them. You have to admire that go-getter spirit.

Angelo arrived and was pleased when one of the waitresses remembered him (I was not surprised). I put away the laptop and we had a very pleasant conversation, his exuberant American loudness reverberating in the garden while he contemplated how to hit on the waitress that hadn’t met him before. We even talked about business briefly. Eventually it was time for him to go. As he was leaving I got a message from Jose that he was on the way. I pulled out the laptop and tried to get a little bit done, but by then it was not the interruptions holding me back, but the beers.

Jose and Adam showed up, taking Angelo’s spot, and more conversation ensued, along with the required beer. Fun was had by all.

Eventually we paid up and went our separate ways. I strolled back up the hill toward home, a route that takes me right past the Little Café Near Home. It was getting a little late, but I decided to pop in and see who might be there on a Friday night.

As it turns out, the joint was jumping (as much as a place that small can jump), and I decided to sit down and have a beer. I mean, why not? As I sipped my suds I was rewarded by the arrival of Iva (rhymes with feevah). I believe I’ve mentioned in these pages before a pretty girl who surprised the hell out of me by striking up a conversation with me a while back. It was good to see her again.

This time, however, she didn’t seem terribly interested in my presence. Oh, well, I thought. She paid and left, and I was lamenting to one of the Martins that she seemed to have written me off when she stuck her head back in the door and said, “Jerry, we’re going to another pub, you want to come?” In retrospect I expect it was another of the Martins who suggested she ask me along, but at the time I just knew that a pretty girl was inviting me for drinks. So four of us — Iva, her sister, Martin 2, and I — went to another place for a while. In this group I was very much the old man.

I’m rather proud of myself, actually. I realized that I was being pretty boring, but I also realized that I was drunk, and that anything I might do to not be boring was likely to be obnoxious instead. Somehow I retained the judgement to merely be boring.

Strašnice is a quiet town, and the pubs close early. Sometimes that’s a good thing. When the barman wouldn’t give us a second round I gave Iva the remainder of my beer. The chivalry! Then it was time to go, and I walked back to my pad, dropped my backpack, flopped onto the Curiously Uncomfortable Couch, and was instantly asleep.

That is part one of the story. The fun part. The experienced among you might recognize the crucial mistake I made. When drinking with friends, drink with them all at once, not one at a time. I had a big meal with the beers, and I’ve certainly had more alcohol than that on other occasions, but on this night I had definitely crossed over to the “too much” side of the line.

It was still dark when I first woke. I was still drunk, but the headache had already begun. Nothing too bad yet, but I could tell there was much worse to come. I went into the kitchen and filled my belly with as much water as it would hold and then a little more, but I knew I was closing the barn door after the horse had got out. I was going to have a hangover. I don’t like hangovers. It seems, however, that until Saturday morning I had no idea what a hangover was.

The next time I woke my headache was in full bloom. A full-bodied, multiphase headache, sharp in back, throbbing and explosive in front. On occasion there would be a feeling that can’t really be described as pain behind my eyeballs and I would throw open my eyelids and bug out the orbs just to make more space in there. That never worked, and so seconds later I would slam the lids shut again and use my hands to keep my head from exploding.

It was not just a headache, though, oh, no. This hangover was remarkable in its completeness. Everything hurt. All my muscles were stiff and sore, as if I had the flu. Then the stomach cramps set in, strong enough to double me over. I thought maybe throwing up might relieve them, but when that finally happened there was no reduction in the severity of the cramps. There was nothing in my stomach anyway; all the water I had drunk was now running down my skin in rivulets.

It was about then I got my first muscle cramp. My left calf knotted up like a baseball, flinging me out of bed to try to walk it off, all other discomforts temporarily eclipsed. I worked out that cramp and slid back between my sweat-soaked sheets when I felt the arch of my right foot getting ready to clinch as well. I managed to preempt that one.

I lay, breathing with care, hours dragging by while I tried to find a position, any position, that might take the pressure off my gut without increasing the chances of a muscle cramp. I needed electrolytes, I decided. I needed to eat, and by mid-afternoon I was ready to try. I knew that would be a dicey proposition, but in fact it was my first step on the road to recovery.

By evening I was repaired enough to manage a trip to the Little Café Near Home for a bottle of Coca-Cola (oh, sweet nectar — the girl there was the same one who had been working the night before; she gave me a knowing look) then back home to watch a bootleg baseball broadcast on the Internet. Then I went to sleep.

Now it is Sunday afternoon. I am still getting stomach cramps, though they are not as bad anymore. My head hurts, but it’s only meaningfully painful when I cough or try to think. I am generally sore all over, and my calf hurts in particular; I suspect the muscle was damaged when it cramped up. I’m still sweating more than is natural.

I wonder, in retrospect, whether a hangover is sufficient to explain the depths of my misery yesterday, and the lingering effects today. Food poisoning? I don’t know, but I’ll tell you this: I don’t want to go through that again.

Pirates of the White Sand Now Shipping!

Well, it’s not everything I had hoped it would be, but it looks like things aren’t going to improve any time soon, so I’ve given up waiting and I’m now proud to send out the Official Director’s Bootleg of Pirates of the White Sand.

For those new to the scene, Pirates is a short film co-written by my brother and me. The script won a competition and the prize was the opportunity to participate in the Duke City Shootout, where the movie was created by a volunteer crew with three days of shooting and four of editing. There were, alas, some technical difficulties, particularly audio problems that cannot be repaired (the czech version sounds much better), but the result is still a bunch of fun. I mean, come on, it’s pirates!

I have now mastered the technology to produce copies of this DVD, and I am ready to send them to those who might want them. The catch is that I need addresses. If you would like a copy, send me an email with your mailing address (I don’t recommend putting it in a comment), and I will burn you a DVD, label it before I’ve had too much caffeine in the morning (my penmanship is not too good even in ideal circumstances) and pop it in the post for you. You can find my email address in the first comment for this episode.

Just to keep things sane and keep my postage costs finite, I think I need to limit the number of copies I send out. Let’s start with the first ten people to request the DVD getting one, and we’ll see how that goes.

2

Rakin’ in the Big Bucks!

Now that Jer’s Novel Writer is selling just a little more briskly than I had hoped, which sure is nice (my warm gratitude to all those folks who have purchased a key… you guys rock!), I can breathe a little easier about the whole eating-and-paying-rent thing. It will be longer before the money runs out.

Nice mug!

You want one. You know you do.

And now, today, a whole new revenue stream opened up! Yowza! Yes, the laws of statistics dictated that sooner or later it would happen. With billions of people bouncing around on the Internet, and some percentage of those people either intoxicated or otherwise mentally challenged, it was only a matter of time before factors converged and someone clicked the fateful button.

Someone bought a Suicide Squirrel Alert Coffee Mug.

I’m not sure how long I’ve had the link over there in the sidebar, but it’s easily been more than two years. Piker Press will put a link to Jer’s Junk up when I have something in the current issue (thanks guys!) so it’s quite possible that this sale was related to my Peek of the Week over there this week.

Yep, 2 1/2 years, one mug sold. It doesn’t sound terribly impressive, but when you consider it in terms of percentage growth, this year has been explosive! And don’t worry, you can still be the first on your planet to sport a Suicide Squirrel t-shirt!

SSDC t-shirt

I think I’ll spend some time today on the Muddled University merchandise.

Finally, thanks to those folks who start their Amazon shopping adventure by clicking the link over there in the sidebar.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

I don’t want to give too much away, but one of the things I like about Japanese storytelling is that there is a difference between an end and a conclusion. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami is an excellent example of that approach. There is an end. Things have changed, what was will never be again. The universe has moved on. Those who are left, however, are still living in a mysterious world where the only thing you can trust is your own love for others.

This story is populated with interesting people, people capable of causing great harm or bringing great joy. Toru finds himself at the center of a world of people who are damaged somehow, injured by some sort of taint on the world, and he has somehow become their champion against a darkness that defies definition. The darkness has a name, though — Noboru Wataya, the name of Toru’s cat and of his brother-in-law.

Fundamentally, the story is a simple one, Toru’s struggle to bring his wife back into his world, to rescue her from the world of her older brother. The struggle itself is anything but simple, however, as mystical forces swirl around Toru and gradually draw him in.

Meanwhile the past is looking over Toru’s shoulder, looming over everything, a sense that something was set in motion a generation ago that is now twisting events for its own purposes. There is an old army officer, who was on a covert mission in Mongolia in the 1930’s. Things were looking bad when another member of his team said, with absolute certainty, that he would die in Japan, and in fact he would outlive the prophet. In that moment the soldier knew the prophesy to be true, but while he survived incredible trials for decades afterward, the knowledge that he would survive, the knowledge of the moment he should have died, renders him a hollow shell, walking dead. It is something of a relief to him, I think, when the prophet finally dies, and death is once more a possibility for him. Under that shadow he is finally able to care for others once more.

There’s a lot of that stuff. Many people are in search of redemption, and each has to find their own path to it. In the center, unwittingly, unwillingly, is Mr. Wind-Up Bird, a quiet man who would rather let troubles blow over than meet them head-on. A guy who likes his routine but doesn’t really know where he fits in the world, yet he carries a quiet conviction that we all wish we had. In a world that is progressively more confusing, he knows just one thing. He wants his wife back, and he’ll do anything to save her from the darkness. Even kill.

Layers, textures, characters, this is some darn good storytelling. Read this book.

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

Lost in the Cosmos: Are you tired of this yet?

So you’ve all read Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book
by now, right? No? You should. Seriously. It pissed me off but it changed the way I thought of the Kafka story I just read. You can’t do much better than that. It opened to me a whole school of thought about thought, (I would prefer not to confuse this with philosophy) with language as a key element. I’m a big fan of language.

Yet here I am picking at the assumptions in the book again. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

The question for today is “where did consciousness come from?” An interesting idea in the book is that self-consciousness was more or less an event – almost overnight we went from being animals reacting to the environment to humans building worlds in our heads. That’s about when we started drawing pictures on cave walls and making up stories. And look at us now.

Walker Percy, the author of Lost, points out that natural selection really isn’t so good at explaining this event. He points out that most people in the world don’t actually need, and have never needed, as much brain as they have. His position is (I think) that at some point the bigger brain would not have had an advantage, natural-selection-wise, unless there was another force at work.

Pf. Chicks dig poets. Enough said about that, except that I really need to work on my poetry skills.

So here we are, carrying big brains around on our skinny necks, brains so big we sometimes kill our mothers during childbirth, and even then we are helpless for a couple of years because there’s no way our full-grown brain is going to make it out of there. These big brains of ours are nothing but trouble. How did any species evolve where the child killed the mother so regularly? How did it all happen so fast?

The sober among you have probably noticed that I have subtly switched “self-conscious” for “big brain”. I’ll defend that later, unless I forget to.

But even so, how does natural selection, a patient and steady process, explain the sudden and dramatic arrival of something completely new? Being completely ignorant of modern biological theory and even more ignorant of the alternatives, I feel I am the man to answer that question. Challenged by Percy, I turned the question upside-down; where he states evolutionary theory can’t explain this enormous departure from anything that happened before, I asked myself, “what would you have to do to evolution to make it work in this case?”

My answer: the Totally Kick-Ass Mutation. In geekly terms, it’s a mutation that is not an event, but a vector. Once the ball starts rolling, it’s such a great idea that even the slightest variation provides a huge advantage.

I imagine that with genetic inheritance there is ‘noise’, a statistical variation in inherited traits that normally doesn’t mean much. But when there is a new thing going on, that noise can dramatically accelerate change. Let’s say, for a moment, that a flying reptile had a little extra fiber on the trailing edges of his wings, that measurably improved his flying. In the following generations, the ones with the more pronounced wing-fibers simply kicked ass. The tiny variations introduced by genetic noise turned out to be a big deal, the slight variations themselves dramatic improvements, and overnight we had feathers. It all happened so fast that intermediate fossils don’t exist.

So are brains like feathers? I’ve met a few folks where the comparison is obvious. The brain explosion seems to have followed a seemingly innocuous skeletal development. “Idle hands do the devil’s work,” the saying goes, and the fossil record seems to bear this out. With the locking knee, which allowed a fairly typical primate to stand upright, freeing the hands, the brain started to grow dramatically. Causal? Hard to prove, but when you compare a Greg Maddux slider with a monkey throwing poo, you can begin to understand. Free up the hands and you have power, as long as you have the brain to use it. There are physiological differences, but making a good throw requires a lot of brain. Hitting a rabbit with a rock is a massive ballistic calculation, and there’s no time to work out the angles. But if you succeed, you eat.

Introduce also that the larger brain facilitates larger social groups (enter language), and you have a Totally Kick-Ass Mutation, one in which only slight variations can prove to be a huge advantage. I imagine this big-brain trend continued right up to the invention of distilled spirits.

‘Enter language’, I said up there, casually, but that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s the moment that Percy cites that separates man from the beasts. A singularity. Language is synonymous with self-awareness because the symbolic distillation of the world requires an interpreter: the self. We are unique in the universe (as far as we know) in our ability to completely misunderstand everything.

My use of the word ‘singularity’ is not casual, there is a school of thought that mankind is approaching another singularity in which, either through genetic manipulation or cybernetics or both, we bypass evolution and design our own replacement. The moment when we lose control of this process and become truly obsolete, the moment the new intelligence leaps so far beyond us that we are quaint but clever animals, that’s the singularity. After reading Percy, though, I see that this would be the second singularity.

Interestingly, Percy (with my help) set the definition of the next singularity. The first: self-awareness. The second: self-knowledge. Something will happen, something as unfathomable to us as introspection is to a bunny rabbit, and a new sort of intelligence will be born.

Unless the liquor brings us down first.

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

What a night

It was a couple of nights ago that this happened, but I’ve hesitated recording it for the world to consume. It was a night of violence at the Little Café Near Home. Violence between regulars no less, violating the somehow sacred bond between those who have leaned against the same bar for a long time. Domestic violence, brother against brother.

It turns out, these guys did not think of each other as brothers. Not at all, and for a long time.

fuego was here, and better able to understand the dialog between the two combatants, and he was getting worried. I, on the other hand, knew that these two had shared the same Little Café for a long time, and had never come to blows before. Whatever they were saying, I had no reason to believe the outcome would be different this time.

There was another incident here, not long ago, that I could have sworn I wrote about, but now there seems to be no record. Huh. Had I written that, and had you read it, you would have come to understand that there are a couple of people who frequent this place who are quite skilled at the use of fists and other tools for hurting people. In that episode I was glad they were around, as they peacefully disarmed a couple of drunks (non-regulars) with just enough force to show that there was a lot more where that came from. It was a fine bit of bouncing, and those drunks will not be coming back. One of those capable people we will call “Richard”. Richard and “Joe” have had a long-running verbal feud. Joe, it seems, has been saying a lot of inappropriate things for a long time.

I like both Richard and Joe. We had been having a good conversation with Joe, covering a wide range of subjects, and in fact tomorrow we have on tap what promises to be quite the spectacle. But that’s the future. Joe is also an archer, which is a hobby of fuego’s as well, so those two hit it off particularly well.

At some point politics entered the discussion, and Richard felt compelled to join the conversation. The subject of disagreement: George Bush. Proving that nothing is universal, Joe is only Czech I’ve ever met who likes the sitting US president. I was quite surprised to discover this. Richard really, really, doesn’t like Bush.

Of course, I was completely ignorant of the fact that they really weren’t arguing about politics. Eventually Richard stepped outside for some air, and my brother joined him. The cooling-off period didn’t work, and a couple of minutes later Richard was back, standing next to me. Bam, bam. Two swings and Joe (not a small man, quite a bit larger than Richard) was on the ground. Richard went back outside.

Joe stayed on the floor for quite a while. Eventually he gathered himself and went home.

Richard came in, and that’s when I learned some of the history of the conflict. Richard was quite upset with himself, in part because he had punched Joe while I was there, but mostly because he knew that answering words with fists crosses some sort of line.

But Richard could have done a lot worse. He was carrying a deadly weapon. I wonder, sitting here, if those two swings do stop Joe from spreading poison about others in the bar (particularly wives), if perhaps in the end Richard used the same measured and appropriate response as disarming the drunks. Fists hurt, but ill words can hurt more. Of course at the time Richard was simply pissed off, but what he did was swift, controlled, and one second after it was over he was out of the room. There was no piling on, no taunting.

It’s a complicated world, even a world as small as the Little Café Near Home.

Waking Up

I helped the woman with her coat. “Diky,” she said. Thanks.

I didn’t answer. By then I was awake enough to know she wasn’t real. Not in the same way I’m real anyway (or someone’s totally yanking my chain). One thing about real people, something that sets us apart from the dark-haired Czech-speaking girl of my dreams, is that while we’re doing all this existing we have a location that we exist at.

Enter the first problem of the morning. I had no idea where I was.

This happens often enough to me (all that time on the road, I suppose), that I sometimes make a little game of it. I lie with eyes still closed as I drift back home from the Land of Nod, and try to work out just where I might be. Not a game, I guess, because at the time it is very important for me to know where I am, and sometimes opening my eyes doesn’t seem to help at all.

This morning, I was quite surprised when I eventually worked out that I was home, in Prague, enduring the Curiously Uncomfortable Couch. What the hell am I doing here? I asked myself.

Fully awake now, I’m still not sure how to answer that.

Karlovy Vary film Festival, Day 9

We watched just one movie on the final day, a Japanese flick with some nice twists and turns, and some really interesting characters that you mostly hate but have to grudgingly identify with. fuego’s putting a list together of all the movies we saw; I’ll probably violate his copyright and put it up here as well.

Then it was time for lunch. Conversation was sparing; we were both tired and we’d just spent eight days together. One thing we both thought, though, was it was time to get some of our work into the festival. Or some festival. Or something.

It’s tricky, though. Making even a short film requires a bunch of talented people, and equipment, and facilities. I’m surrounded by film people, all of whom have their side projects, but I’ve never seen any of them finish one. So the trick would seem to be coming up with a project that required little or no cash (raising money puts a huge unknown in the schedule, and no one will commit to the project until the money is there), was interesting to the right people, and then finding a block of time when they all can commit as if it was a paying job.

When I got home last night I knocked out a screenplay for Hell-Cricket, which fuego is going over now, but it almost certainly breaks the zero-budget rule. Which means that we can only take the project to a certain point before we reach the money-raising stage, where it would be very easy for the project to stall. I have no idea how much money we’re talking about, and won’t until more work is done, so it may not be too bad. We’ll see. While we push forward with Hell-Cricket, I’m still mulling what we could make that requires only getting six or so people to commit a week of their lives to it. I’ll keep you posted.

Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Day 8

Day 8, the last full day of movie-watching, was only two days ago, but already the memory is a bit on the sketchy side. Our first film wasn’t until 4 p.m., which made for a lazy day. From four to midnight I caught four movies.

And they were… uh…

Mutant Lizards! I remember the midnight one had mutant lizards. It was pretty good.

I do remember thinking that it had been a pretty good set of movies… I just can’t remember what they were.

Joe Strummer! One of them was an excellent documentary about the life of the front man for The Clash. Quite moving at times.

And… um… two others.

Quite a day!

Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Day 7

There was a minor hullaballoo surrounding the screening of David Lynch’s new movie Inland Empire, so perhaps it was the European premiere or something like that. Then again, maybe not. I did score a free T-shirt out of the deal, whatever the reason.

One thing about staying up to watch the campy movies at midnight, coming home and writing, then getting up in the morning to score the next batch of tickets: there isn’t much time for sleeping. So it was that we arrived at the screening armed with Coca-Cola and sandwiches, mentally preparing ourselves to become one with our seats.

I’m not the biggest David Lynch fan to start with, and this movie did not substantially move my opinion of him in either direction. fuego said it best: “The thing is that he almost makes sense, so you keep watching, thinking it’s about to come together.” Well, that’s not exactly what he said, but it’s close. At the end of this one, something significant has happened, and there are some people who are happier than they were, others not.

I got the feeling at some points, however, that the creative process went something like “Hmm… this part is tedious. Let’s put the actors in rabbit suits so people will be confused rather than bored.” It’s a sort of sleight-of-hand that shifts the blame for not enjoying the film onto the viewer. Instead of saying “I didn’t like it,” people say of Lynch’s movies “I didn’t get it.”

Quite a few people left early, but I lasted to the end. I fought heavy eyelids for a bit, but by the end I was fully engaged. The movie portrays people living multiple, parallel lives, drifting between them in a lost, confused fashion and intersecting each other in interesting ways (for far too long), and at the end you do get a feeling of resolution, even if you’re not sure just what was resolved.

Overall, I’m glad I went and I’m glad I stayed to the end, but it’s not a movie I’m going to go out of my way to see again.

The rest of the day included an Australian comedy with excellently crafted characters called (I think) Lucky Miles. The description sounds like the beginning of an off-color joke. “An Iraqi, a Cambodian, and a Thai are in the Australian outback…” Hijinks ensue, seasoned with moments of drama. Next came a Czech film titled in English Empties, another comedy that did a great job of mixing in drama. The writer/main actor spoke a few words before the show, and said, “I wanted to show that growing older does not make you any better at life.”

Finally, it wouldn’t be a movie day without zombies. fuego and I had been joking about zombie exploitation and labor laws earlier in the week, and now here was a movie that was about that very subject. It is set in a 1950’s-like American Dream town, with shiny cars and white picket fences. And zombies, of course, fitted with special collars that curb their desire to eat human flesh. The zombies provide a docile and cheap labor force. No one has forgotten the Zombie Wars, however, and marksmanship is an important part of the grade-school curriculum. “Remember, always shoot for the head!”

Overall, it was a good day of movie-watchin’. Only two days left, then it’s back to the real world. Whatever that is.