Elevator, Ocelot, Rutabaga to One and All

Pretty safe to say that 16.000 on the Muddled Calendar is the strangest of times to be saying Elevator, Ocelot, Rutabaga (so far). Still I wish you, each and every one, a happy and prosperous new Muddled Year.

Haircut In Place

I was getting shaggy long before The Virus came to town. The other day, the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas floated an idea. “Maybe I could cut your hair.”

For background, as a kid, my dad cut my hair many times, and while I was young enough to be oblivious to the quality of the result, I enjoyed those times. (As I reached my teens the thinning shears in the home haircut kit were an object of fascination to me, allowing me to be shaggy while not overheating my cranium. Dad and I both appreciated the engineering behind those shears.)

So there I was with way more hair than I wanted, and the Official Sweetie offering a fun project of togetherness. No arm twistage was required. “It will not be the best haircut you ever had,” OSoMR&HBI said. I will not tire you, dear readers, with a litany of the bad haircuts I’ve had in my life, but I was reasonably confident that this one would not be the worst.

Plus: The difference between a good haircut and a bad one? Two weeks. By the time anyone saw my lovely locks, time would have passed and evened things out.

The cut went down. Of course we documented the adventure.

shaggy jerry
My hair goes from 70’s to 80’s as it grows, but the transition from there to 60’s is messy.

My new favorite hair stylist arrayed her tools: My heavy-duty hair trimmer (I lost all the guides over the decades, but my good pal John gave me the 3 from his set a while back, so it was 3 or nothing that night), scissors not intended for cutting hair, and a sweet comb from roughly 1978. Add a couple of hair clips and we are ready to go!

“Wow! That’s short!” The Official Sweetie said. She had made a few exploratory passes with the trimmer, but finally she put the guide against my scalp and made a run, bogging the mighty trimmer for a moment with the sheer power of my thick hair, but leaving behind a summer-length swath of almost-naked scalp. I felt the breeze and smiled.

Byng was not OK with all this.

Meanwhile, our little dog Lady Byng was not OK with any of this. Clearly pack members were doing terrible things to other pack members, which might have been all right were it not happening in the room that exists only to torture dogs with baths.

At one point The Official Sweetie stopped. “I kinda want to stop right here,” she said. Although without glasses my image in the mirror was indistinct, I could see what she meant. Kinda reminded me of the bad guy in Fifth Element.

I asked that we carry on, however. I wanted a haircut with staying power.

For the next few minutes I came to appreciate barber’s shears. When in the big chair I hear “snip snip snip” at an impressive rate; that is the product of scissors that are both sharp and quick. Loose-hinged but somehow tight. Cutting hair with slower scissors requires a great deal of patience.

OK, I promised I wouldn’t belabor bad haircuts of the past, but my worst haircut was also the most time-consuming and most expensive. Jason (a friend’s favorite) fiddled with my hair for an hour, cutting one goddam strand at a time, and while the final look played to my hair’s Ultra-80’s feather-the-fuck-out-of-it-and-make-David-Bowie-weep strength, that was not what I had asked for. I just wanted my hair to be shorter.

My needs are actually pretty simple. My hair is long. I want it to be short. Even my regular hair-cutter has a hard time believing the transformation I want, and she’s done it several times.

My sweetie knows this. She hacked away with scissors and trimmer, and while the result was maybe not what a trained professional would have pulled off, it was not too shabby.

Over the last couple of days I have found a couple of places the clipper missed, and there is some choppiness. But overall, an unquestionable success.

Before you even ask, I will not be returning the favor.

Damn You, Bauhaus

I’m trying to write an episode that is actually interesting, but it hasn’t been going well. And that was before “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” came on the TV/Internet/Radio music distribution system.

It all starts with the simple bass line and the clock-ticking percussion, and I get sucked in. Then Peter Murphy takes direct control of my brain. It’s haunting, and even when it’s loud it’s all somehow far away.

It’s over now, and I just have to remember what I was writing about.

Forward to the Past

I’ve spent the last few days learning Ember, which is a software framework for making apps that run in your browser. It’s fun to learn new things, and it has been fun to learn Ember, which to me is a less-awful-than-most javascript framework.

(Things are going to be technical for a bit; please stand by for the rant that is the foundation of this episode — which is also technical.)

The good news: I have never taken a tutorial for any framework on any platform that put testing right up front the way Ember’s did. That is magnificent. The testing facilities are extensive, and to showcase them in the training can only help the new adopters understand their value. Put the robots to work finding bugs!

Also good news: Efficient route handling. Nested routes that efficiently know which parts of the page need to be redrawn, while providing bookmarkable URLs for any given state is pretty nice.

But… I’m still writing html and css shit. WTF?

Yeah, baby, it’s ranting time.

Let’s just start with this: HTML is awful. It is a collection of woefully-shortsighted and often random decisions that made developing useful Web applications problematic. But if your app is to work in a browser, it must generate HTML. Fine. But that shouldn’t be my problem anymore.

When I write an application that will run on your computer or your phone or whatever, I DON’T CARE how the application draws its stuff on the screen. It’s not important to me. I say, at a very high level, that I expect text in a particular location, it will have a certain appearance based on its role in my application, and that if something changes the text will update. That’s all.

I don’t want to hear about html tags. Tags are an implementation detail that the framework should take care of if my application is running in a browser. Tags are the HOW of my text appearing where I want it. I DON’T CARE HOW. Just do it!

When I came to work in my current organization, the Web clients of all our applications were built with a homegrown library called Maelstrom. It was flawed in many ways, being the product of two programmers who also had to get their projects done, and neither of whom were well-suited for the task of ground-up framework design (in their defense, the people who invented HTML were even less qualified). But Maelstom had that one thing. It had the “you don’t have to know how browsers work, just build your dang application” ethos.

There was work to be done. But with more love and a general overhaul of the interfaces of the components, it could have been pretty awesome.

Why don’t other javascript libraries adopt that approach? I think it’s because they are made by Web developers who, to get where they are, have learned all the HTML bullshit until it is second nature. The HOW has been part of their life since they were script-kiddies. It’s simply never occurred to them that the HOW should not be something the app developer has to think about.

There have been exceptions — SproutCore comes to mind — but I have to recognize that I am a minority voice. Dealing with presentation minutiae is Just Part of the Job for most Web client developers. They haven’t been spoiled by the frameworks available on every other platform that take care of that shit.

My merry little band of engineers has moved on from Maelstrom, mainly because something like that is a commitment, and we are few, and we wanted to be able to leverage the efforts of other people in the company. So our tiny group has embraced Ember, and on top of that a huge library of UI elements that fit the corporate standards.

It’s good mostly, and the testing facilities are great. Nothing like that in Maelstrom! But here I am, back to dealing with fucking HTML and CSS.

Robots and Safety

Earlier this month I mentioned that the streets of San Jose are awash with robot cars (five out of a sample of several thousand along a particular high-robot-volume street qualifies as “awash”).

I mentioned that one of the cars was a test vehicle for an outfit called Nuro, and I further mentioned that almost all the content on their Web site is a big treatise on safety. I went on to say that I had not read that document.

Well, today I was thinking more about it, and I went back to Nuro’s site to poke into their safety information. First impression: A document for non-experts that tackles very complex technical issues, but it seemed pretty legit.

Final impression: Nuro must have some pretty serious cash behind it, to take this long and winding road to achieve public trust.

The safety paper opens with the observation that 20% of car trips in the United States are people going shopping, and another 20% are people running errands. For many of those trips, the human is there simply to ferry stuff around. If robots can accomplish that task, that directly reduces the exposure of people to injury in automobile accidents — they’re not in their cars at all! Instead they are home moving the American economy forward by playing Candy Crush.

Nuro also mentions near the start of the document that 94% of all traffic accidents are due to human error. Remember that number when someone someday says, “30% of all robot-car crashes are due to software failure!

Nuro is creating a vehicle that doesn’t have people inside it. That gives it some very interesting advantages in the safety realm — the vehicle can choose to crash into a light post rather than hit the idiot that ran out in front of it. Self-sacrifice is an option for a vehicle without people in it. And the vehicle itself can be squishy, since it doesn’t have to protect occupants. The “windscreen” is a shiny panel on the front of the vehicle designed to give humans visual cues about the behavior of the car, but it doesn’t have to be layered tempered glass. It’s just shiny bouncy plastic.

Not having an impatient human to appease means the robot can putter along at a speed that increases decision time and shortens stopping distance. I think that’s important… but 25 mph max might be a little too slow for the streets around here, until we can get rid of all the impatient humans.

There are many, many words used in the document about when the robot decides it can’t operate safely and will pull out of traffic until a remote human operator can take over. While I see the necessity of that short-term, I expect with a few improvements to civil traffic control (flagman signs that can interact directly with robot cars springs to mind), that before too long the robots will learn to outperform the human backup.

I chose the word “learn” because there is a sort of cyber-attack I had not heard of before. You have probably heard of machine learning, although it’s frequently (and incorrectly) labeled artificial intelligence. Many companies have developed sophisticated systems that, after exposure to countless examples, are able to generalize information. It’s super-slick.

Nuro’s cars work that way. They are constantly gathering data from the environment and using that to refine their behaviors, and they share that information with the rest of the fleet.

But when your data comes from the environment around you, assholes can manipulate that environment to teach the machines falsehoods. Sometimes yield signs are octagonal and red, things like that. (Although to be successful the false data would have to be about something subtler, I suspect. I can easily imagine college-me arranging traffic cones differently every time a Nuro vehicle passed by. It’s an obvious parallel to my “yeeech” experiment, which shall not be documented in this episode.)

Of course there’s all the other usual stuff to keep the vehicles from being hacked, and one advantage of “safety as a priority before the first line of code is written” is that security also can be built in at the ground level.

Also mentioned more than once: the “whole widget” concept. If the software and the hardware are developed together for a single focussed purpose, it will work better and be safer. Steve Jobs would be proud.

And if you consider air quality to be a safety concern, then something like this makes everyone safer.

Nuro recognizes that the biggest obstacle to their success is social. Will people seeing Nuro’s placid robot cars poking along through the neighborhood think good thoughts or bad thoughts? Will appreciation of reduced traffic congestion, better air quality, and a more convenient life outweigh the fear of a robot uprising, and perhaps even worse, the fuming rage of being stuck behind a little robot car doing 25 in a 35 zone?

Reflecting on how Fortunate I Am

It is not surprising that Silicon Valley has active Coronavirus cases. This is a hub of world interaction, especially with Asia. The capital-V Virus is here now, has been for a couple of weeks.

For the past few days my company and all the other tech companies in the area have been encouraging their employees to work from home. Starting today, I will have to pass a health quiz and fever check to enter my office.

What a luxury my company and I share. With some minor technical complaints, I can work anywhere. I just need my brain and a computer for it to manipulate.

There are kids who will literally starve without their school lunches. There are hard-working wage-earners who won’t get the hours they need, and others will simply lose their jobs.

Then there are the many, many people who will go to work and risk exposure every day. I will be on the couch with my dogs, wishing the screen on my laptop was bigger.

At Least Get a Sandwich

Tonight I have seen ads from two entirely distinct restaurant chains offering a free sandwich in exchange for your personal information.

I’m all right with that. Your info is yours to sell. Just be sure you understand the transaction. And here at least, you can establish a concrete value for your personal information. One sandwich.

So every time you give your information out, ask yourself: Am I at least getting a sandwich?

When you fill out an online quiz, are you getting a sandwich? When you sign up for notifications, are you getting a sandwich? When you send email to someone with a gmail address, are you getting a sandwich? If you use a gmail email account, are you getting a sandwich for every email you send or receive?

Google gives no sandwiches. Google pays you nothing for your personal data, and despite legislation in Europe and California, is skating around your ability to force them to delete your data. Facebook, also. All the social media assholes. They make three sandwiches of profit off you, but give you no sandwiches.

What is called for is a data marketplace, where your information is yours to sell, and you can negotiate terms. The cornerstone of that is that your personal information is NOT something someone else can sell.

Just Another Commute in Silicon Valley

Today as I used public transportation to go to work, I saw five robotic cars, operated by three different companies.

Three of the five cars were Urban Automated Driving vehicles operated by Bosh and Daimler, running (human monitored) robot taxi service along the same corridor my bus takes. The Mercedes c-class vehicles are equipped head-to-toe in lidar units (lidar is like radar… with lasers!) and if I loaded the app I could ride in one. Which… is tempting, for purely journalistic reasons. My biggest question: How bored is the human monitor? Super-bored means things are going smoothly; super-bored also means that the human will never spot the emergency in time.

The second company was Nuro. The vehicle was a Toyota or whatever with sensors all over it, but what the company is actually developing is an autonomous vehicle that doesn’t have seats in it at all. Their dream: order your groceries and have the robot bring them to you. The vehicles are electric and since there is no need to account for human comfort, they could theoretically be much, much cheaper. It is easy to imagine that many companies that sell stuff would be interested in having something like that. Nuro’s Web site doesn’t have a lot of information, except for a pdf with a major discussion of safety (that I didn’t read).

There was a third, but my most humble apologies, dear readers, I don’t remember the company name painted on the car. It was not Google; I haven’t seen one of those in a while. Apple, should they even still have experimental cars, would keep them anonymous (which, as I think about it, would be just as definitive as putting a neon logo on the side — no other company would operate vehicles with a bunch of extra gear strapped on without missing the chance to brag about it).

As cities go, San Jose and the rest of the unplanned, disorganized sprawl that is Silicon Valley is… meh. And the cost to live in meh is staggering. But one thing I do enjoy is that it feels like we are just a little bit closer to the future here. And there’s nothing like Bay Area traffic to make you really, really, look forward to the day when people are not in control of giant deadly machines.

“It was CRAZY up there!”

I remember a time, long ago, walking along a beach that had a huge amount of rotting vegetation. My friend commented on the stench, and I wondered, not for the first time, if perhaps my sense of smell just wasn’t as good as most people’s. This week I got my answer.

If you have been around me for any amount of time at all, you know that I will sometimes sport a lingering cough that goes on for weeks. During the course of my malady my lungs are clear, but there is a steady stream of grot flowing down my sinuses and into my throat. Even when I don’t have a cough, I have an irritated throat most of the time.

In general, those coughs have been triggered by sinus infections. I recently began to wonder if there might be a structural issue in my face that made me more susceptible to infection, and made the infections linger beyond all reason.

So at last, after about 50 years of just rolling with the problem, I went to see a nose doctor.

Dr. Carter, who is a hoot, peered up my nostrils and said, “Yep, your septum’s deviated to the left.” I was a little surprised at that, only because in general it is the right side of my face that is more constricted. Dr. Carter then ran fiber optics up my nose and down into my throat, looking around. “This is gonna feel really weird,” she said as she guided the camera into my head.

She scheduled me for a head scan and when the results came back, I sat with her and we went over the image. It turns out my septum started to the left, but then veered back to the right and hammered directly into one of my sinuses.

I think perhaps to make the insurance justification easier, Dr. Carter first started me with a regimen of medications and shooting saline solution through my nose. But finally it was time to get the sumbitch fixed.

I mentioned I was having the procedure to a few friends, and two of them immediately set out to temper my expectations. Sure the results were great eventually, but both my friends warned me that the recovery could take a long time — even months.

Eight days ago I checked in at the surgical center and, after a delay, I was wheeled from a crowded pre-op holding pen into the gleaming, science-fiction-worthy operating room. As is procedure, the OR staff chatted amiably with me while the anesthesia did its magic. Vacations was the topic.

… and then I was somewhere else, not in pain, but profoundly uncomfortable, with unrelenting pressure behind my eyes. I reached up and began to massage my besieged eyeballs, really working on them, when someone said in an alarmed voice, “Don’t rub your eyes!” Apparently that was not the right thing to do.

That post-op time is a little hazy for me, but the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas got to meet the esteemed Doctor Carter, and was also impressed. OSMR&HBI reports that Dr. Carter used the phrase “all kinds of wonky in there” to describe the state of my under-face, but also she said that the surgery had gone well.

In my nose at that point were two splints, tied together by a suture through my septum. The splints had airways built in, but let’s not fool ourselves — all that blood and mucus was going to get in there and plug those suckers.

[Get-poor-quick aside: how hard would it be to create a tool to allow the patient at home to safely clear those airways? It would have made a huge difference to me.]

Home, I settled onto the couch, propped myself up, and that became my home base for the next four nights. For the first two nights, sleep was pretty much impossible. I could put my head in a comfortable position, but when I dozed off my tongue would block my airway and I would wake up after a few seconds in a suffocation panic, or I could tilt my head back, cpr-dummy-style — but them my throat was so open I would dry out after a few breaths and begin to cough (I wasn’t supposed to cough).

Eventually the inflammation lessened and I was able to get at least some air through my nose. That resulted in a suffocation emergency after a few minutes, rather than a few seconds, and that made a big difference. Never was I so glad to get two hours of sleep in a single night.

In the kitchen three days ago, I opened the container for my traditional second cup of the morning, a blackberry and sage infused tea, and… I smelled it. I mean, I really smelled it. Even with my nose stuffed with plugged-up hardware, I smelled it. Later, I ate a very-ripe banana and it tasted weird. Like no very-ripe banana I had eaten before. I almost chucked it when I realized that it wasn’t the banana that was different.

I got pretty excited. I had just been looking forward to breathing better and maybe not having a wracking cough 10% of the time. I had not considered that my actual sense of smell might be enhanced.

I mentioned that to my boss via chat, and his response was, “You should grab an IPA, really test that baby out.”

Which tonight I have done. I went in to have the splints removed this afternoon, and Dr. Carter regaled me with stories of just how messed up my nasal structure had been. “It was crazy up there!” she said. She described bony masses, chiseling, sinuous septums, and a bunch of other stuff. “How have you made it this long without having that fixed?”

I shrugged at that. How was I to know that breathing could be so easy?

Because holy dang, when the splints came out, the breathing commenced. And the smelling just got better. And the IPA? Magnificent.

Five Dollars

It’s something I learned from my asshole brother.

This evening I’m sitting in an agreeable bar in San Jose and the party at the table next to mine has been expanding. Before long there were more butts in the party than seats to put them on.

A woman from that group saw the unused seats around my table and put her hands on one of them, while asking “Do you mind if I take this seat?”

“Five dollars,” I said.

This was absolutely not the response she was expecting. She hesitated, her face clouding in confusion and perhaps suspicion.

After a pregnant moment I let her off. “I’m kidding,” I said, “Go ahead.” She relaxed from a confrontation she was not ready to manage, and moved the stool from my table to hers.

Not long after, as the party at the next table grew, another woman asked for another of the seats at my table. “TEN dollars!” I announced.

She laughed as she took the stool. “Hourly, I assume?”

The Perfect Foul-Weather Car

Over the holidays I took a trip back to the homeland to hang with my family for a few days. I flew in to Albuquerque then rented a car for my trip north into the mountains.

I reserved an economy car, of course, in the cheapest price tier available. Certainly no need for anything more.

The flights went well and I was on the ground in Albuquerque at the appointed time. I made my way to the car rental place, where a man named Mario helped me out. He asked me where I was heading. When I told him I was heading to Los Alamos he said, “It’s snowy up there! Snowed yesterday, gonna snow again tonight!”

“I grew up there,” I said. “I’ve driven in the snow before.”

“All right,” Mario said. He tapped some keys. “I’m going to be putting you into a Mustang tonight.”

Because there’s nothing like a muscle car for slick conditions. “You don’t have anything with front wheel drive?” I asked.

Mario tapped the keys for a while, but I’m not sure why he bothered, since they didn’t have any other cars except giant (and expensive) trucks. Mario muttered quietly to himself as he scanned the inventory, “Muscle car… muscle car… muscle car…”

“Normally I’d love the chance to play with a muscle car,” I said, “But as you said, things might be slick up there.”

He kept pretending to look for a different answer, but there was none.

I’ve kept an Alpha Romeo on the road during snowstorms up there; a Mustang shouldn’t be that bad as long as I’m light on the gas. “OK,” I said, “Put me in a Mustang.”

A few more key-presses later, and Mario handed me the fob-without-a-key for the car I would be driving for the next few days. Not just any Mustang, but a Mustang GT with the five-liter V-8. Because when you’re in slick conditions, what you really need is more power.

I will leave my impressions of the car for another day, except to say that it was my first time driving a car with a touch screen or one that had a backup camera. I liked the latter much more than the former.

While in the Atomic City, I met with old friends. One chilly afternoon I pulled up at Bill’s mom’s house and saw another Mustang on the street.

Yep, that was John, with his rental from the same company.

Honorable My Ass

I got a letter in the mail a couple of days ago. It claimed to be from the Honorable Mike Pence, but it turned out to be from our current Vice President instead. “Confidential Material Enclosed” the envelope proclaimed.

Must be Important Shit.

You might be surprised to learn that what the Republican National Committee considers to be “confidential” would better be described as “bat-shit crazy”. Here was a letter that perfectly summarized the alt-truth narrative-trumps-evidence Republican fear-mongering dip-shittery. Dip. Shittery. The logic of dipshits.

Attached to the appeal for my money was a small survey, and in the package of confidential information was a postage-paid envelope.

So I filled out the survey. Where it asked (something like) “don’t you want those pesky democrats to stop persecuting Trump?” I used a big ol’ sharpie to answer no. There were other questions like that, and one that asked if I thought the media was dishonest. I wrote “Fox” over the yes box.

Then I sent the “survey” back, postage paid by the Honorable (according to him) Mike Pence and the RNC. If you have a similar opportunity to express your opinion, I encourage you to do so.

Space Opera Without Magic

I enjoy reading space opera, but almost all stories that involve space ships, and in particular space ships shooting at one another, require certain levels of magic to work. There is an agreement between reader and writer that certain inconvenient facts can be glossed over, and a few magical technologies are added (or magically removed) to get things to work.

I wanted to create a setting that had space battles around distant stars, but included no magic. I was… mostly successful, but I did have to resort to using social magic to replace some of the technological magic.

The first future-techno-magic is, of course, is faster-than-light travel. Without it, it takes a long, long time to get your ships to the star system where the battle will occur. The alternative is creating a machine that can accelerate to near the speed of light and then slow back down again to arrive in the target system. I consider that to be extremely difficult — almost magic, but possible. This method also removes the immediate need for another bit of magic — artificial gravity.

So these machines with people in them are spending a few years to get to their target. Once they get there, any intelligence they have about the target system is decades old. Also, the occupants of that system will see them coming from a long way out, and have plenty of time to arrange an unpleasant welcome.

The logistics problems don’t end there, because after the battle either the ship has to wait decades for a signal to get back to the command center and for new orders to arrive, (those “new” orders possibly long-stale by the time they arrive), or command has to be sending out streams of orders all across this part of the galaxy to cover all foreseen contingencies. It would make prosecuting an interstellar military campaign really, really difficult. But it wouldn’t (quite) require magic.

The simplest solution to the logistics issues would be to have independent ships raiding planets with no larger political goal. But that wouldn’t be space opera.

Now our ships of war have arrived in a hostile place, to encounter other, somewhat similar ships.

Conventional Space Opera includes an array of magic to make such a battle meaningful. The core magic to make this happen is “shields”, sometimes called “deflectors”, that neutralize certain attacks. Shields use energy to stop lasers and other threats, and when ships are slugging it out, the strength of the shields is always an important metric of battle progress. “Shields at 29%!” or the beloved “The shields can’t take much more of this!”

Why are shields necessary? Because otherwise when an armada was heading your way, you’d send a bunch of nukes into the formation and blow the shit out of them, then resume your lunch.

Those invading ships will have all sorts of weapons designed to stop the nukes from getting close enough, but it becomes a numbers game, especially since without magic “close enough” is still a long, long way away. My cloud of nukes will cost a tiny fraction of the amount you paid to get your spaceships here.

One possible counter to that strategy is that the ships are so valuable that it would be better to capture them than to destroy them. That has actually been true for much of the history of naval warfare. But during that time, capturing the other ship was one of the fastest and safest ways to end the battle; if the ship that was losing could have sunk the other, it would have. Still, maybe that lets the combatants get close enough that a cloud of nukes is no longer an option.

Interestingly, the The Expanse series, although it includes one massive bit of super-future-tech-magic, has no magic made by humans. What stops them from using nukes in their space battles? In fact, in that series the very first act of space-violence involves a nuclear warhead, but this is received by the people of the solar system as an atrocity. So warships carry nuclear weapons, but are very hesitant to use them — not for military reasons, but for social ones. Battles once again belong to ships piloted by people shooting tiny pieces of metal at high velocity at one another.

Since there is no artificial gravity, the limits of what the ships can do are dictated by the limits of the people in them. The written version of The Expanse spends a lot of time talking about the technology used to keep people alive and functioning during battle.

In my story, I had to resort to “social magic” to get space battles back into the fun zone as well. In my case, using weapons of mass destruction is something “Only a mammal would do.” (In my story, spacefaring species are all based on a reptilian template, but now humans are out there, too.) You, mammalian reader, wouldn’t understand, not really, but just know that the reptiles have this idea of “the future” that mammals don’t seem to possess — at least, not during times of stress.

But let’s go back for a moment to the measures taken to keep a pilot alive as she flings her fighter ship into battle. Surely her frail flesh is the limiting factor for the ship. And why are there people operating the guns shooting at her? These are two tasks that, if you remove the organic component, you will improve the system dramatically.

We have discovered a new sort of Space Opera Magic, or maybe anti-magic. When Luke Skywalker straps into the gunner’s chair in the Millennium Falcon, the assumption is that he can do something better than a machine can — even though the machine is trying to tell him where to shoot the whole time.

Perhaps the machine’s sensors can be jammed. But… clearly sensors in the optical range of the spectrum work just fine, or Luke and Han wouldn’t be able to see the ships out there. Maybe they should hook up one of those fancy new smart phones to the targeting computer and then just stay out of the way. Or if the sensor has to be organic, I’m sure the techs down in the lab could grow a bunch of retinas to put into the targeting sensors. Aiming those guns is just not a job for people.

Nevertheless I wanted strike craft in my space battles. They’re fun! But what non-magical means can one use to justify putting living creatures in them? Two ingredients are needed: Something to make remote control impractical, and no artificial intelligence.

Remote control becomes impractical if the space battle is over a large enough theater that the speed of light introduces a lag between controller and ship, plus there are opportunities for the other side to intercept or block the signal. So it’s not too hand-wavy to rule that out.

AI can be a little tricky, though. It could be argued that true AI just may never happen, but how “intelligent” does a fighter pilot need to be, anyway? Any organic cleverness lost will be far outweighed by massive performance enhancements to the ship and to the utter fearlessness of the guidance system. Or perhaps tunable fearlessness. If we have machines now that can carry a pizza through city traffic to your door, it doesn’t seem a reach to believe that with a few hundred years of further research we can’t come up with a system expert enough to do space battles.

Once more I resorted to taboo. AI is another Slippery Slope to Extinction, something careful, long-view reptilian minds would not contemplate. Super-expert systems are treading too close to the edge.

In my story creating genetically-modified pilots that can handle greater stress is considered taboo, also — after all, modifying your species is another future-threatening activity — but perhaps not every reptile-template species in my story adheres to that taboo as strongly, which creates an asymmetry in the space battle that the good guys have to deal with.

In some ways, eliminating magic makes space opera more difficult to write. By design space opera resembles old Horatio Hornblower stories, and inherits much from the battles in those old stories (with airplanes added). And while I found myself cringing at my own hand-waving to preserve some of my favorite space opera elements, eliminating magic also created complexities for the occupants of that universe that can be turned into interesting conflicts.

The people who started the war will be long-dead by the time it is over. The soldiers on the front lines have no illusion that they will ever understand the outcome. And through it all, no one, anywhere, can see the big picture.

The Places I’ve Made

If I could get paid for the settings I’ve imagined, I’d be retired now. I’ve spent more than one November bouncing around a world I’ve imagined, looking for a story.

Remembering Topstar

Perhaps the most extreme example of that was Remembering Topstar. The setting is awesome. It’s a planet, you see, that’s quite a bit warmer than ours, so that only the poles can support life. At one pole there are people. They don’t know day and night, they only know seasons. Eventually they start to wonder what (or who) might be at the other pole.

I wrote it as an adventure story, and I think that was the right call. But it never found its mojo.

Setting details:

Metal is rare (a colleague suggested the planet’s sun be a red giant, an older star, which would mean there was less iron around when the planet formed). The traveling party brings with it a massive Foucault’s Pendulum to measure their latitude, and it represents an immense investment, comparable to us building a Superconducting Supercollider.

As the party moves south, wind and rain and jungle and creatures that live in the jungle get very, very, nasty. Then there’s the entirely devastating moment when the scientists with their pendulum tell you that you’ve barely left your front porch.

What a great place to put a story! Maybe I need to imagine that setting, then imagine Jules Verne growing up in that setting, and then write the story he would. A science fiction adventure story written by someone who lived on that world.

Glass Archipelago

Then there is Glass Archipelago. Miami, not long from now, when southern Florida is under water. Some of the towers have fallen, providing breakwaters protecting the remaining ones from the ravages of the superstorms that sweep across the Atlantic. Each tower stands as a city-state, ruled by a feudal overlord.

The oceans are almost completely dead of complex life; algae blooms have grown to just be the new normal and the water has no oxygen. While you might think aquatic mammals would still be all right, none of them are vegetarian, not even baleen whales. They all are gone.

The buildings make their living harvesting algae and sending it off to processing plants on the new US coastline, hundreds of miles away.

Setting Details:

Not too far under the ocean’s surface the city of Miami still exists, and there’s a good living to be made scavenging. There is another culture, the rafters, who live on giant rafts and make a living skin-diving for loot.

There are naval bases, nuclear power plants, medical research facilities, and on and on, all now lying under the ocean. Also, some of the algae produces serious hallucinogens.

My attempts at a story in this setting so far centered on a rafter, and I’m pretty sure that’s a good vector. Special bonus: living in the open on a raft her whole life, she’s got pretty serious claustrophobia.

Math House

Which brings us to Math House. Isaac Asimov once imagined a science he called “Future History”, in which the movement of large enough populations could be predicted statistically. The great Hari Seldon predicted the fall of the Galactic Empire and using Big Math created the conditions for the following dark ages to be as short and benign as possible.

But what if the Galactic Empire had discovered Future History first? Would they not use it as a tool to prolong their dominance? Would not statistics become a tool of the oppressor?

Yeah, that’s probably not a hypothetical anymore. In the Math House world, math unsanctioned by the government has been outlawed. When math is outlawed, only outlaws do math.

There are the titular math houses, underground hideaways where the art is advanced. When the cops bust them, they do their best to convince the authorities that they are just watching the (required) television and doing drugs. Drugs are not legal, but they are sold by extralegal government arms, and not buying drugs will put a red flag in your file.

The math houses advertise themselves to potential members by posting elaborate puzzles embedded in graffiti. The clues will be scattered all over the city and it will take some serious math to work it out. If you can solve the puzzle and get to the right door with the right greeting, you have proved yourself worthy.

There are tiers to the math houses; finding the truly elite houses requires “publishing” through graffiti something new or innovative.

The best part of this world is that the cops who hunt the math-heads have to learn a lot of math. Eventually each of them realizes that their own success puts them on the suspect list.

Seems like a story in this world almost writes itself. Apparently not for me.

The End

I’m not sure this one belongs on the list. The world is blasted. The Armageddon wasn’t (entirely) nuclear, it happened when wizards went into a bare-knuckle brawl and wiped each other out, along with the planet. Now there is almost no fertile soil and crazy-ass creatures roam the spaces between, starved to the point of insanity.

Now there is just pain hunger and the occasional artifact, showing up when it is least welcome.

I did start to put a story in this setting, or at the very least a character study. The narrative gets rolling with what I have only now realized is the only actual human in the story dying.

Everything is poison. Everything is dead. Everything wants to kill you. Which is all just the way of things, no big deal, unless you are motivated by love.

The Garden

This year’s effort. Although I found some story possibilities late in the process, this is one of the most complete worlds I have ever built. Earth is gone (probably), and the last of humanity are really expensive hitchhikers riding alien battle fleets.

The core observation is that reptiles are much better-suited for interstellar space travel than mammals are. In this world, reptiles can be put into cryosleep, allowing them to slumber through the years of interstellar travel, while mammals, and humans in particular, must live through those years.

It creates an entirely different view of time between the two allies.

Why do the reptiles go to the extravagant expense of having humans on their ship? Because when shit gets crazy the mammals can burn brightly and reveal solutions. The reptiles, with their long view, are consumate strategists, but humans are the master tacticians. Decades of planning will go into each battle, but once all the shit is going down, having a mammal in charge is an enormous tactical advantage.

Historical Interlude:
I’ve been led to believe that George Washington was a great planner and logistics guy. However, word on the street is that he really sucked at adapting his plans as the battle unfolded. In my story, the lizards are like George Washington, and the partnership with humanity has given our favorite reptilian conquerors a massive advantage over their also-George-Washington rivals. The humans bring a fluidity to battle they have never known before.

Every human on those boats is there to help their hosts win battles, and negotiations, and perhaps, (unofficially) political rivalries. Every human is measured by the service they can provide to the ship. Perhaps fifteen percent of conceptions reach adulthood, and that’s just the way it is.

As a setting, it’s a tight, closed world where tiny things become big things, and so the powers that be work overtime to prevent the tiny things. Seems like a volatile world to write a story in. Volatile means interesting.

In conclusion

If you need a place to set your action, call me.

World Building and Storytelling

This is my nineteenth time doing NaNoWriMo. Dang. NaNoWriMo is an abbreviation of National Novel Writing Month and the challenge is to pump out 50,000 quality-optional words in the thirty days of November.

In my head I’m composing a retrospective come December about all the great settings I’ve created over the last nineteen years that never found a story (so there’s something you can look forward to). This year’s effort may or may not qualify.

It was about 35,000 words in that perhaps the actual story began. All that stuff before? Things happened to people, people learned things, but it was all in service of defining the world these people live in. It was all world building.

It is a high compliment in my circles when someone says a writer is a great world-builder. There are big ideas (the world is actually a ring that goes all the way around the star) and subtle ideas (busy busy busy).

But a quick word to all you nascent writers that hang on my every piece of advice: World building is not storytelling. World building is the writer’s process for defining an interesting setting that creates a context for a great story.

For the love of Calliope, don’t spend pages telling me about the rules of magic in your story, or tell me about the vampire’s society, or draw me a fuckin’ map. Show me the world through your characters’ eyes. Tell me what they taste, what they feel, and how the world touches them. Chances are those people are going to change the world, so it’s their view of the world that matters.

You can (and should!) write all those other pages, and draw your maps or whatever you need. Just don’t make me read them. I don’t want to sit through a dissertation about your clever world. If it’s a swamp, start me with my boots in the mud and we can go from there.

35,000 words in, I had maybe 1000 words that could one day be published. But I was really starting to know where Malika lives. Now at 40,000 words, I have one potential plot and one unrelated story. Awesome if I can bind the two, but that seems a reach right now.

But as of 35K, I am definitely making somewhere.