I’m Doing it Wrong

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

So what creative stuff have I been up to?

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

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

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

But apparently you’d think wrong.

3

A Mighty Game

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

Frey

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

The review (two hours earlier):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It used to be yours.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeding the Eels: the end

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

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

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

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

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

“The usual?” Jake asked.

3

Episode 32: Boiling Blood

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

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

“I’m not—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The boss—” I started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t remember ever feeling so alone.

 

Tune in next time for… The Kiss of Death!

1

A Grammar Question

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

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

*deep breath*

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

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

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

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

1

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

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

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

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

It looked fine, humming away quietly to itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1

The Double-MacGuffin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1

Episode 31: Final Offer

A Brief Re-introduction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just want to hear you say it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it you want, Mr. Lowell?”

“Your handshake.”

Santiago hesitated. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tune in next time for… Boiling Blood!

1

PG&E is a Bunch of Evil Bastards, but Hold On a Sec

A couple of years ago, there were several horrifying wildfires in California. (Trump blamed all the dang trees.) It turns out many of those fires were caused by criminally negligent practices by Pacific Gas and Electric.

Remember Erin Brockovich? That same PG&E is still around.

LONG diversion coming, but it’s an interesting story. If you don’t want to enjoy my ground-rehashing journalism, scroll down to “But anyway…”

Then there was the period where California tried to bring a market economy to power distribution. I lived in San Diego at the time, and our deal was different than the rest of California. SDG&E was the pilot for phase two of the program. I could choose my own power generator. Obviously I chose a company that generated electricity (relatively) responsibly. And while the electricity that my ultra-hippie power-generation company actually produced probably didn’t reach my outlets, it all evens out on the grid.

But the grid isn’t a magical system that transparently moves power to where it’s needed. The grid has choke-points, and there are critical spots between northern and southern California that PG&E and Enron and Ross Perot identified early on.

The evil companies were actually contracted to write the software that tied electric rates to supply, and they built in a key weakness: If they could contrive a shortage in one part of the state, they could charge everyone extortionist rates. The film-flams even had cute names in the internal memos at Enron and their pals. I don’t know how much California paid them for this service.

PG&E was a pal.

The system went into place, and after a few months the energy companies started actively fucking with California. They COULD have subtly and gently influenced the energy market over the course of years, and might still be doing it now, but greedy fucks will always be greedy fucks and the evil energy companies decided to loot California for as much as they could get as fast as they could get it.

Rolling blackouts hit Southern California, as too much electricity was bottled up in the north. People lost the contents of their freezers. Businesses failed. Hospitals scrambled. People died. The energy companies made a quick billion dollars.

The narrative at the time, guided by a credulous media was, “those darn Californians sure waste a lot of energy!” And none of us down in the rolling blackouts thought to consider that energy companies like PG&E would intentionally do this to us.

But they had. And when the dust settled and California scrapped its free-market energy experiment (the energy companies made sure there would be no actual free market), PG&E was sitting on a giant pile of fraudulent cash. The lawyers would be coming.

Lucky for PG&E, Enron was even more evil, and had been destroying the lives of their own employees while they ripped off California. In slick maneuvering the lawyers defending Enron’s top criminals managed to seal the documents implicating the evil energy companies in collusion and fraud on a scale this country has not seen before or since. (Before the docs were sealed, they were widely reported on, but once they were sealed, they could not be used for other prosecutions.)

Meanwhile, PG&E split itself in half. One half had the money, the other half could be sued. Both halves are owned by the same motherfuckers; they were just pulling yet another fast one. Without the smoking gun of the sealed documents, that was enough to protect the dirty money they had made. SDG&E did similar sleight-of-hand. My hippie electricity provider apologized for not being to do business in such a toxic environment.

We’ll pass over the time when PG&E’s negligence led to a gas line explosion that blew up a few houses. “Decaying infrastructure,” the headlines said, as if a company making billions using the infrastructure wasn’t responsible for maintaining it.

But anyway…

Then there were the fires, and the roughly 2400 lawsuits that followed when people figured out that PG&E was a bunch of assholes that doesn’t mind killing people for profit.

PG&E faced a lot of ire. One of the biggest criticisms was, “If you’re not going to do the work to make your part of the grid safe, at least turn off the power in at-risk areas before another disaster happens.”

When we think of the grid we think of giant skeletal frames bearing wire, marching in eerily straight lines across the landscape. But there’s another part of the grid, where those massive lines terminate and split into smaller high-voltage transmission lines. There are a bazillion of those power poles in California, and they are not all inspected as often as they should be. Branches get close to lines, the wind blows, lines come down and fires start.

In the face of lawsuits and PG&E’s contrived dodge-the-consequences bankruptcy and generally bad PR, PG&E is determined this year to not be the cause of another deadly wildfire. Today they have shut down the power to large chunks of Silicon Valley for safety, along with widespread shutdowns in more rural areas up north.

People are somehow surprised about this, even though PG&E has been saying they would do it for more than a year now.

That whole diversion above was mainly to let you all know I’m no shill for PG&E. I hate those fuckers. I hate them more than you do. I hate them almost as much as the poisoned families Erin Brockovich represented do.

But there is outrage today against the evil bastards that is misplaced. We TOLD them to stop causing deadly wildfires. That is what they are doing. They TOLD us that they might have to turn off the power, and we should be ready.

THIS IS NOT A SURPRISE. It is not out of the blue.

It is not some screw-job by PG&E. They don’t make money when we eat barbecue by candlelight.

On the other hand, I do have to wonder. I can sense a petulant child behind these shutdowns, a pudgy frowny sweaty child-face saying “you want safety? I’ll shut all you fuckers down and then you’ll appreciate what I do for you!”

Obviously I can’t prove that.

But these shutdowns do prove what perhaps we’ve known for a long time. The grid sucks. The grid has given the evil bastards at PG&E and Enron and the rest the power to jerk us over. The grid has been inconvenient for those same bastards to maintain, so they don’t, and it kills people.

Even when the grid is working perfectly, it is terribly inefficient. More than half the energy generated is lost in transmission.

We need to destroy PG&E, cut through the bullshit corporate layers and recover the money they have stolen from us. Don’t sue the shell companies, sue the people. But it’s not just enough to destroy PG&E. We have to destroy the grid.

The grid gives them power. The grid causes deadly fires. The grid consumes half the electricity generated in this country even before it reaches an outlet.

The technology exists, now, to make electricity a cottage industry. I imagine my neighborhood making a deal and turning all our rooftops into a solar collective. Those panels wouldn’t cover the energy use of the park, but we could partner with local energy companies and because of local generation, the transmission loss would be reduced, so the price could be reduced as well.

“Buy local” is especially appropriate when referring to electricity.

2

Gilfoyle’s Prognosis

Perhaps you read recently about my little asshole dog’s time wearing a heart monitor. Welp, the data is back and it’s on the better-news side of the spectrum. There was one “event” that aligned with “squirrel” in his diary. There were other minor irregularities, but none that require immediate intervention.

For now, it’s all good, but the little guy has a bum ticker. There’s a real chance that eventually medical intervention will be required.

“I don’t want it to be about money,” the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas said. And I agree. We are responsible for the well-being of our pack members who don’t have thumbs. All they give in return is unconditional love, companionship, humor, and a thumpy feeling in my heart.

It’s only right Official Sweetie and I look out for the health of the pack.

But.

I vow now not to prolong the suffering of creatures who depend on me so I can feel that thumpy feeling a little longer. I promise Byng, and Gilfoyle, and any others in my care, that they will not suffer simply because I don’t want to say goodbye.

That applies to the humans I love as well.

3

WordPress Geekery: Reversing the Order of Posts in Specific Categories

Most blogs show their most recent posts at the top. It’s a sensible thing to do; readers want to see what’s new. Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas mostly works that way, but there are a couple of exceptions. There are two bits of serial fiction that should be read beginning-to-hypothetical-end.

A while back I set up custom page templates for those two stories. I made a WordPress category for each one, and essentially copied the default template and added query_posts($query_string.'&order=ASC'); and hey-presto the two fiction-based archive pages looked just right.

Until infinite scrolling came along. Infinite scrolling is a neat little feature that means that more episodes load up automagically as you scroll down the page. Unfortunately, the infinite scrolling code knew noting about the custom page template with its tweaked query.

The infinite scrolling is provided by a big, “official” package of WordPress enhancements called Jetpack. The module did have a setting to reverse the order for the entire site, but that was definitely a non-starter. I dug through the code and the Jetpack documentation and found just the place to apply my custom code, a filter called infinite_scroll_query_args. The example even showed changing the sort order.

I dug some more to figure out how to tell which requests needed the order changed, and implemented my code.

It didn’t work. I could demonstrate that my code was being called and that I was changing the query argument properly, but it had no effect on the return data. Grrr.

There is another hook, in WordPress itself, that is called before any query to get posts is executed. It’s a blunt instrument for a case like this, where I only need to change behavior in very specific circumstances (ajax call from the infinite scrolling javascript for specific category archive pages), but I decided to give it a try.

Success! It is now possible to read all episodes of Feeding the Eels and Allison in Animeland from top to bottom, the way God intended.

I could put some sort of of settings UI on this and share it with the world, but I’m not going to. But if you came here with the same problem I had, here’s some code, free for your use:

/**
 * reverses the order of posts for listed categories, specifically for infinite Jetpack scrolling
 */
function muddled_reverse_category_post_order_pre_get_posts( $query ) {
	if (isset($_REQUEST['query_args']['category_name'])) {
 
		$ascCategories = [
			'feeding-the-eels',
			'allison-in-animeland',
		];
 
		if (in_array($_REQUEST['query_args']['category_name'], $ascCategories)) {
			$query->set( 'order', 'ASC' );
		}
	}
}
add_filter( 'pre_get_posts', 'muddled_reverse_category_post_order_pre_get_posts' );

In the meantime, feel free to try the silly serial fiction! It will NOT change your life!
Feeding the Eels
Allison in Animeland

1

Lady Byng

Not a lot of interest today, other than a mild plumbing emergency. So here’s a picture of Lady Byng that I rather like.

1

Blogtober Idea: Finish Something

Long ago I toyed with a frivolous serial fiction piece here called Feeding the Eels. It started as a parody of the noir genre, but gradually resolved into an homage.

I thought, what better way to get back into the fiction groove that pound out the conclusion to a story that had as a constraint that I spend a limited amount of time on each episode?

Eels had some pretty great moments as well, as far as I recall. It would be super-satisfying to actually finish something.

It’s been long enough, however, that I don’t remember all the ins and outs of the story. I was starting to tie up loose ends, but boy did I introduce a lot of factions in the early going. I clicked the category link in the sidebar and started reading.

So many comments on some of the episodes! There was an actual following for the story. A small following, but bigger than I usually get. I started reading, from the throwaway first episode (you can skip that one if you decide to read it) up to Episode 15: Year of the Rat. Next was Episode 14. Um… what?

Then 13, followed by 12.

Somewhere in the past I did some hijinxery to make the episodes in that category go from oldest to newest, with is anathema for blogs in general and WordPress in particular. Unfortunately, whatever I did is not compatible with the WordPress infinite-scroll feature of my current theme.

There is, at this time, no way to read past episode 15. Big Surprises and Heartbreak are soon to follow, but until I do some coding, it will be hidden. Suddenly my fun writing idea is dependent on a programming task. Sigh.

It’s worth doing, however; so tomorrow will be a technical day as I perform some server software upgrades and try to remember how I got the fiction categories going in the other direction, and how to make that work with infinite scroll.

Then over the course of October I will finish a story. And that will feel really, really good.

2

Rock Week

After an extended grind at work, it was time to take a few days to get my regular life back on track. I had several goals, from getting back on the bike to installing a ceiling fan to making appointments with doctors.

I was successful-ish. I got enough done to feel like I was catching up, but I didn’t accomplish all I wanted to. I didn’t ride my bike as often as I had planned, but I got plenty of exercise. I didn’t get the new ceiling fan installed, but I learned about alternative home wiring.

I moved a lot of rock. On Wednesday I shoveled up old rock and moved it to its new home in the raised gardens where is color would not be wasted. I was pretty blasted on Thursday, but the real cost of exercise comes two days later, and in Friday I was hurtin’.

Hello, Saturday.

The night before I couldn’t sleep. A shit-ton (shit ≡ 6.5) of rock was going to be dropped in the street. There would be no stopping until all 13,000 pounds were not in the street anymore.

I woke up feeling all right, and when the Most Wise Official Sweetie called to have the rock dropped in the driveway rather than the street, my anxiety dropped. And I felt pretty good, physically.

“Today is going to suck,” Official Sweetie said. I was inclined to agree. But if you accept that going in, you can steel yourself to the pain.

The rock arrived, deposited with great care in the driveway. Five cubic yards, 6.5 tons, 13,000 pounds. A shit-ton. “That’s a lot of rock!” The dump-truck driver said, many times.

I didn’t reply, “We’re going to rock this town!” though I probably should have. I believe that was the only pun or cultural reference relating to rock that was not spoken over the next two days.

I just wanted to be a machine. Even as the great pile of rock loomed over me, I wanted nothing more than to be a tireless agent of transport. Shovel shovel shovel, trundle trundle trundle, dump. But we weren’t there yet. There was planning to do. Brian stuff.

Official Sweetie did the brain stuff. She also pushed more than a couple of barrow-loads of rock. She is tireless. She is awesome. But it was up to me to move old rock and to place the new stepping-stones.

Once I had discussed whimsey-level for the paving stone placement, and I put some math to use to establish spacing, I spent a while carrying paving stones and digging them in to their new happy places.

Eventually it was time to move rock.

Shoveling is a skill. “Lift with your legs, not your back,” is the axiom, but for the longest time my knee heartily disagreed with that aphorism. For the first few hours of shoveling I put an enormous load on my arms to compensate for all the other body parts not ready to step up. My arm was on fire and I knew there would be hell to pay. Finally I found an odd straight-backed crouching form that did not extend my knee through its vulnerable range, and shoveling improved greatly.

Eight shovels a load, around the house and up a curb. Ten-shovel loads were tough to pull up the curb so I decided to walk more, and just roll with it. It was a big job and it was going to take some time.

As night fell I was beat. Junked. But not finished. My body was hammered enough that I knew I couldn’t assume I’d be motile the next day. I really wanted to finish. My tireless, motivated bride wanted that even more than I did.

But it was not to be. My feet hurt so bad I had difficulty walking. As the night grew darker cars were giving me less room as I pushed loads of rock around on the street. “Five more loads after this one,” I told myself. I had to call it quits for the night.

I managed the five loads, another few hundred pounds of rock moved from A to B. Completely depleted I staggered home with Official Sweetie and when we got there I greeted the dogs and just lay on the floor.

My watch was happy, congratulating me on my biggest workout ever. My dogs were happy to have a chance to bury themselves in such a magnificently redolent pack leader. I was less happy; I knew that as empty as I felt at that moment, there was still a lot of rock to move.

Sunday came round, as Sundays always insist on doing, and I was mildly amazed to discover that I could move. I could even walk. I was expecting agony and I got… okness.

My feet — I don’t know if I’ve properly communicated how they felt Saturday night. I was filthy down to my pores, but I put off taking a shower as long as I could because that required standing. I was amazed that I could put on shoes, let alone walk.

The good part about Sunday was that the job was finite and known. Three or four more hours of shovel, shovel, shovel, trundle trundle trundle dump, with occasional breaks for level level level. Two wheelbarrows, two motivated trundlers, and a few thousand pounds of pebbles.

Then it was over. I gathered up our tools and staggered once last time along the path I had blazed along the street.

The rock is spread, and it looks good. My legs were noodles, but no worries about getting exercise during my time off.

3