Friday, April 27, 2007

Eloquent Eyebrows

Every so often, it's time to recalibrate my reasons to fear for my personal future. Having a good enough imagination to imagine all kinds of dire fates, I have to keep anxiety about the future on a short leash, preferably by translating worry into planning. Good pilots do that: have Plan A, Plan B, perhaps C, and plans for emergencies. By being prepared for most outcomes, you can fly—or exist—without wasting too much time and energy on anxiety. But I, for one, have always regarded the prospect of serious health issues as unvarnished doom.

This morning's Houston Chronicle had an article about the famous physicist Stephen Hawking experiencing weightlessness yesterday at Cape Canaveral.

Dressed in dark-blue flight suits, Hawking and an entourage of caretakers boarded a Boeing 727 that roared out over the ocean and carved huge parabolic arcs in the sky, creating for passengers the floating "zero-gravity" effect of being in outer space. While levitating, Hawking, who has been in a wheelchair for nearly four decades, was spun twice — pirouetting like a "gold-medal gymnast," a crew member said. Someone else floated an apple in the air alongside him in an allusion to Isaac Newton, whose esteemed chair Hawking now holds at Cambridge. Once each of the 25-second spells of zero gravity ended — as the plane headed to the bottom of each arc — assistants ensured that the celebrated physicist's body was lowered to a mattress on the plane's floor as gravity kicked back in.

I've had friends who rode the original weightlessness airplane: NASA's "Vomit Comet." It was not for the faint of stomach. For everybody who ever took to it like a duck to water, there were a lot of people who lost their lunch repeatedly, plus one or two poor people who crawled into a corner to be miserably sick the whole flight.

After one ride, crew members asked if he wanted to go again. Hawking dramatically raised his eyebrows in an emphatic yes.

Hawking sees the brief experience of weightlessness as a step toward space. He regards space travel as important for the long-term survival of the human race. And he wants to go into space himself some day. The paralysis from Lou Gehrig's disease is so severe that he talks with a speech synthesizer operated by twitches of his eyes. But he was game for eight roller-coaster climb-dive maneuvers. The article is accompanied by a photo of a weightless Hawking grinning widely.

But Hawking said ending a message about what people with disabilities can achieve was only a small part of his motivation. He wants to encourage copycats — people who will say, "If he can do it, I can, too."

Maybe not take a Vomit Comet ride under quite those circumstances. But hold onto the determination to realize one's dreams, and have fun at it, even while living with a serious physical (or other) affliction—yes. We should all copycat that.

Made for TV

It is really kind of sad, for one who has grimly enjoyed the unintentional Strangelovian surrealism of it all, to see the national security state's ham-handed efforts at WWII-style citizen warrior mythmaking breathe their last emphysemic gasps.

I suppose the spin doctors in charge grew up watching late night replays of The Fighting Sullivans and the like — heroic tales of average American fellas who give it all up for the noble cause of freedom and Democracy. All as remixed through the (now quaint and harmless, almost nostalgia-worthy) age of California Über Alles, with its Top Guns, Rambos, and Chuck Norris-as-Bo Gritz craptaculars.

(Speaking of which, I see where Stallone is working on Rambo IV. Not much out there about the latest scenario, but he'd be wise to look back to David Morrell's original material, the fine First Blood, whose tale of hunter-killer veteran wreaking havoc on a cush society that does not know how to re-integrate him into the highly socialized fold is likely to be far more germane archetyping than the steroid-fueled jingoism of the mid-1980s.)

Jessica Lynch has finally come clean, testifying before Congress about the true lies of her rescue attempt. Remember that one? The perfect 21st century descendent of Sgt. York — scrappy West Virginia girl in a convoy of mechanics that took a wrong turn in some Shiite southern province, blasting away solo at the Republican Guard, a working class Valkyrie who redeemed our lost valor. And the daring rescue by an elite squad, who conveniently had a videographer along for the show.

In case you hadn't figured it out already, it was, to put it charitably, spin-doctored a bit. (News too late for the made-for-TV dramatization.) But hey, Matt Lauer is no Edward R. Murrow, because that's not what the American public wants anymore.

And then there's the Pat Tillman thing. The NFL player who quit the Cardinals after 9-11 to join the Rangers, only to get fragged by his squad on some Afghan moonscape. Subject to an elaborate cover-up complete with burned evidence and an unearned posthumous medal, until his savvy lawyer dad busted the brass. Conspiracy theories involving Tillman's nascent anti-Iraq War stance and planned meeting with Noam Chomsky (!) no doubt abound. The investigation of that one continues.

Too bad the spin doctors weren't a little more up-to-date. Perhaps they should add a little cyberpunk, a little Pranks!, a little Baudrillard to the curriculum at whatever war college it is where they teach the big thinkers of America's domestic propaganda during the age of the GWOT. (It's actually illegal for the Pentagon to direct psychological warfare at "homeland" audiences, but apparently real-time hagiography from the front with no more attachment to objective reality than made-for-TV docudramas doesn't count.)

If the Pentagon were smart, it would feature dramatic profiles of more Zeitgeist-ready 21st century archetypes of that weird combo of American civilian savvy with warrior service to the national cause. Like:

- The guys who bombarded Iraqi officers with one-on-one cell phone psyops in the run-up to the 2003 invasion, implementing smart mobbing as counter-guerilla warfare.

- The guys who blasted continuous loops of Barney and Metallica at detainees as a fun alternative to waterboarding (heirs to the masters of The Noriega Playlist).

- The female interrogators at Gitmo who came up with such ingenious techniques as wiping faux menstrual blood on torn out pages of the Koran, flashed in the faces of their charges under the hot light.

- The young Predator Drone pilots, sitting in their air-conditioned trailers in some desert lot, cruising onscreen over the world (viewed through crosshairs), playing the awesome new first-person shooter that actually kills. (A society whose most mind-numbing juvenile pasttimes now unintentionally incubating an Army of latchkey Enders.)

Those are some reality action movies that might actually get my patriotic hormones pumping. But the cyberpunks aren't in charge of our psyops yet (so far as we know).

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Dinosaurs and politics at bedtime

The Enormous EggAs a parent, I long ago decided that I would participate in that time-honored ritual of reading to my children at bedtime. We started out, naturally enough, with various Dr. Seuss books and eventually found our way to My Little Pony stories and some (atrociously written) young reader Sailor Moon novelizations. The Junie B. Jones series, as well as Beverly Cleary's various books (which still hold up well, although Ramona the Pest isn't quite so uproariously funny in comparison to Junie B. Jones, a character obviously inspired by Ramona Quimby) have also gained quite a following in the Blaschke household. That's not to say my influence is negligible. Genre-leaning books have included Tolkien's The Hobbit, L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

Two books in particular I remembered fondly from my childhood were Oliver Butterworth's The Enormous Egg and Danile Pinkwater's The Hoboken Chicken Emergency. I made a point to track down copies of these books to read to my daughters, and The Enormous Egg was the first one I happened across.

Simply put, it's amazing the stuff that's in "children's books" that you never pick up on as a kid.

The Enormous Egg is, on the surface, a fun children's story about a triceratops that hatches out of a hen's egg--a profoundly large hen's egg. Beneath the surface, however, it's a very political book. It casts a cynical eye at politicians, lampooning them with over-the-top satire and contrasting their buffoonery with the everyday, down-to-earth common sense and resolve of the common man (or in this case, the common boy, represented by Nate Twitchell of Freedom, New Hampshire). Butterworth also goes after the conspicuous consumption society as well as layering in a good dose of conservation advocacy for good measure. There's a kind of idyllic libertarian theme running throughout. Here's a particularly beautiful exchange from the latter half of the book, in which a U.S. senator crusading against government waste pretty much lays it all on the line:

The Senator raised his big hand over his head, and waggled a finger at the other Senators, the way Miss Watkins does when she's getting ready to scold us in class. "The animal I speak of is a dinosaur, gentlemen, of the type known as the Tyranno--ah, rather, I should say the Triplo--no, that's not it... The scientific name escapes me at the moment, gentlemen, but it makes no difference what we call it; it is still the ugliest, evilest-looking reptilian I have ever seen, and it's a disgrace to our National Zoological Park and to the department that operates it. Can you imagine for one moment bringing the innocent, bright-eyed children of good American families to look at this inefficient, outmoded and outlandish specimen of a bygone age? Do we want our children to grow up to be forward-looking citizens of our forward-looking country? Then we must not let them dwell on the useless creatures of the past, the foolish mistakes of Nature discarded long before Columbus planted the American flag on our beautiful shores. No, gentlemen, there must be no living in the past for us, but rather we must bravely face the future, and march on together, hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder, to that glorious destiny that lies before us."

Some of the Senators clapped, and Senator Granderson took a few swallows of water from a glass on the table.

"I propose to get rid of this monster," Senator Granderson went on. "I am submitting a bill before the Senate to make the possession of all such unnatural animals a Federal offense. It should be exterminated, and the sooner the better."

Another man near Senator Granderson stood up. "I agree with the honorable Senator, and I want to propose an amendment to his bill. I propose that this dinosaur be skinned and stuffed, and presented to Senator Granderson as a trophy in recognition of his untiring work in searching out waste and error in the National Government."

Naturally enough, the dinosaur taxidermy would be paid for at the public's expense. Certain grandstanding politicians today could well see this book as an attack on them personally, were it not for the fact that it was originally published in 1956. Yet the brilliance of Butterworth's writing is that it can be read as an allegory for pretty much any issue in which the government is dictating social standards from the top down. I don't have to list them here--I'm certain anyone reading can come up with half a dozen without breaking a sweat.

As I'm reading this to my girls, I keep thinking how it would make a fun children's movie--especially in light of the resurgence of live-action book adaptations of late, such as Bridge to Terabithia and How to Eat Fried Worms. To my surprise, it has apparently already been filmed as a 60 minute TV movie from 1968. The special effects sound like they make Land of the Lost look cutting edge, and I have a difficult time seeing any of the political commentary from the book making it to the screen considering the time period. But I think the time is right for Hollywood to revisit the material, and it could be great fun. In any event, it's amazing what fun treasures you can find hidden in the pages of half-forgotten books from childhood.

Monday, April 23, 2007

It's International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day! Hoorah, hoorah!

The Peasant

Remember, kids, today is International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day! Following Howard Hendrix's comments about writers who give their work away for free online, Jo Walton named International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day, when those of us who are technopeasants and webscabs undercut the efforts of our fellow writers by daring to give work out for free. For free! The horror, the horror....

My contribution is here. The central list of fellow webscabs is here. Friend Of The Revolution Chris Roberson's contribution is here. Charlie Stross, of whom you may have heard, has something up here. Some guy named John Scalzi has half a novel up here.

Dear Reader, your duty is to read these things, and then, if you like what you read, post (in your own journal or elsewhere) about the writers you've started reading because you found them online. Go, go!

And remember--every time you read something a writer put online for free, you're undercutting the ability of working writers to make money. You're also making the baby Jesus cry.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Love Song of Richard McBeef

I can tell you now that it was me in the pictures. The ones the police have refused to release. The ones that have yet to appear in Drudge's pornographic mirror.

My relationship with Lisa Nowak, the scandalized astronaut, was brief but intense. We met online, exchanging double entendres on a message board devoted to live recreations of minor disasters of the twentieth century. Soon, I was driving the three hours to Houston every weekend for our clandestine assignations.

Locked in a hotel with the anti-gravity Betty Page, I read technical manuals and surgical texts aloud while she prepared for the abduction of her rivals. She hunched over the hotel desk in her black underwear, jury-rigging inventive devices of temporary imprisonment. She completed the proofs I read from the physics textbook, saying it helped her forget the names of her children.

The hotel was a Doubletree on the George Bush Intercontinental Airport access road. From the balcony, I watched windowless 747s land with their strange cargo, unloaded after midnight in hangars out of view of the passenger terminals.

Lisa described Antarctica as viewed from space, and I planned our private colony on the far side of the moon. We were not in love, but we completed each other in a strange way for those four weeks.

That was before the invasion. Before the tanks rolled down the Avenida Ahmad Chalabi, the Galleria fell under the bombardment of our unexpected liberators, and all the signals went dead.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Hurricane Moon

"Love flourishes amid technical puzzles and planetary mysteries in Latner's strong debut... Well-known for her hard SF short fiction, Latner should win new readers with this fine first novel." —Publisher's Weekly

"Houston" was the first word from the Moon. Hurricane Moon by Houston author Alexis Glynn Latner is a science fiction novel about mankind's next momentous first step into the universe: a starship seeking a new world with a large moon. It takes a large moon to stabilize a planet's axis and bring life-giving tides and orderly seasons. The astronauts and colonists of the starship Aeon discover an Earthlike new world that has a huge blue moon—an oceanic planet covered with hurricanes. And then their season of crisis begins.

Pyr is the science fiction and fantasy imprint of Prometheus Books, an independent book publisher since 1969. Editorial Director Lou Anders is a nominee for the Hugo Award at the World Science Fiction Convention to be held in Yokohama, Japan, August 30-September 3, 2007.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-545-0
Trade paperback, $15
July 2007

Monday, April 16, 2007

Terribly afraid of the future. The present, too, and change.

"I'm also opposed to the increasing presence in our organization of webscabs, who post their creations on the net for free. A scab is someone who works for less than union wages or on non-union terms; more broadly, a scab is someone who feathers his own nest and advances his own career by undercutting the efforts of his fellow workers to gain better pay and working conditions for all. Webscabs claim they're just posting their books for free in an attempt to market and publicize them, but to my mind they're undercutting those of us who aren't giving it away for free and are trying to get publishers to pay a better wage for our hard work."

Dr. Hendrix is quite right. There certainly are a number of scabs who are endangering the salaries of working men and women by giving it away for free, and I’m certainly going to enjoy seeing him take these scabs to task.

First, of course, he'll begin at home. You see, Dr. Hendrix and his wife get "over ninety five percent of our winter heating" from wood felled on his property. But Gordon & Sons Woodcraft of Shaver Lake (209.841.6243, ask for Gordon) lose considerable business thanks to Dr. Hendrix’s property giving its wood away for free. Dr. Hendrix can’t be a hypocrite—no one so devoted to the good of his fellow writers could possibly be flawed or inconsistent in his views or actions—so obviously it is his wife, not Dr. Hendrix, who chops the wood and splits it for firewood. But—never fear—Dr. Hendrix will put a stop to that behavior.

Dr. Hendrix will then turn to his fellow volunteers at the Pine Ridge Volunteer Fire Department and point out to them that, by volunteering their work for free, they are endangering the salaries of the local firefighters, undercutting those who aren’t firefighting for free and are trying to get the town to pay a better wage for their hard work.

Having cleaned up his own kraal, Dr. Hendrix will then turn his attention to the outer world. He will of course start lobbying publishers. Dr. Hendrix has certainly noticed that there are freelance editors who charge authors to examine their work. And yet publishers have the audacity to assign editors to writers and not charge the writers! Don’t the publishers want to see that all editors get a better wage for their hard work?

Dr. Hendrix has no affection for online life, but like most Americans he surely has watched television—and perhaps still watches it. In his campaign for a fair wage for hard work Dr. Hendrix will realize that in England anyone wishing to watch television must first pay a television license, £11.29 per month for a color t.v. and £3.79 per month for a black-and-white television. But in America the television networks don’t charge viewers anything at all! Don’t NBC et al. want their employees to get a better wage for their hard work? All Americans will happily anticipate the outcome of this particular crusade on Dr. Hendrix’s part.

I’m sure that he has noticed that there are writers who put reference books online for free. As someone who has written at least one reference book, The Ecstasy of Catastrophe, currently selling for $51.70 on Amazon, Dr. Hendrix stands to lose considerable money when scab writers make reference books available for free. On the other hand, Dr. Hendrix’s book was described, in The Sixteenth Century Journal, v22n4, Winter 1991, as “not always (engaging) modern critical issues” and having “an occasional inattention to detail and, more significantly, a rather mechanical reduction of issues to suit the author’s frame,” a description which undoubtedly cost Dr. Hendrix money in the form of copies of his book not ordered. So perhaps Dr. Hendrix will be in favor of having reference books online, where his work won’t be subjected to reviews which will cost him money.

Next on Dr. Hendrix’s list will be podcasts and videoblogging. Dr. Hendrix’s Wikipedia entry lists a number of presentations at various academic conferences and several publications in academic journals. As a fellow academic, I’m well aware of the meaning of articles in academic journals and presentations at conferences. In most universities’ annual review process, a conference presentation is worth between half and three-quarters of a paper published in a peer-review journal. In turn, one peer-review journal publication per year is enough to guarantee merit pay, which ranges from $1500 to $5000, depending on the university. In many universities today the main requirement for tenure is between two and six peer-review journal articles; the financial reward for tenure is between $1500 and $10,000, again depending on the university. As Dr.Hendrix knows, if enough articles are delivered for free via videoblogging, universities will no longer be inclined to pay for them come review time, and academics will be forced to prove themselves to universities in some other fashion. Rather than writing another enthralling, topical, and witty article on the humor of Gawain’s anti-feminism (Comitatus v14, 1983), Dr. Hendrix might be forced to…brace yourselves…teach undergraduates, rather than having graduate students do it for him.  

We have much to look forward to from Dr. Hendrix.

Rainbows in the dark

There are several reasons I really enjoy my day job: 1) I get to use my journalism skills without having to deal with the headaches and hassle of actually working for a newspaper; 2) fun co-workers and superiors who respect me and my abilities; and 3) the youthful energy and inquisitiveness of a university setting is intellectually stimulating. But the card that trumps them all is the fact that I regularly get to work on articles as nifty as this one. I mean, moonbows? What's not to love?

This dramatic moonbow photograph includes stars of Ursa Major, Draco, and Ursa Minor above the north rim of Yosemite Valley. The water in Lower Yosemite Fall and Yosemite Creek blurs in this time exposure made by Grant Johnson near 12:30 a.m. PDT on May 13, 2006. (Photo by Grant Johnson)

Famed naturalist John Muir once urged visitors to Yosemite National Park to seek the elusive, ethereal moonbow at night in Yosemite Valley.

Now, a team of astronomers from Texas State University-San Marcos has applied their unique brand of forensic astronomy to the rainbow’s nocturnal cousin, unraveling when and where this little-know natural phenomenon can be viewed in the remote California wilderness.

Texas State physics professors Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, along with Mitte Honors students Kellie Beicker, Ashley Ralph and Hui-Yiing Chang, publish their findings in the May 2007 edition of Sky & Telescope magazine, on newsstands now.

Rainbows in the dark

Although people have been watching for moonbows for centuries, this is the first time anyone has calculated dates and precise times for appearances of this unusual event.

Conditions must be ideal for moonbows to form--a bright moon and abundant water droplets suspended in clear air in opposite directions from the viewer--and because of this rarity, few people have ever seen one. Figures from Aristotle to Benjamin Franklin have written about the rare phenomenon throughout the ages, but as early as 1871 Muir wrote enthusiastically that moonbows could often be found forming in the fine spray coming off Yosemite Falls--no rain clouds required--and he described their beauty in his 1912 book, The Yosemite.

The Texas State researchers, inspired by Muir’s accounts of the spectacle, developed a computer program which would allow the accurate prediction of dates and times favoring the appearance of moonbows at the Yosemite waterfalls.

Yosemite fieldwork pays off

The research team quickly established six criteria necessary for Yosemite moonbows to form, which they modeled with their software: clear skies around the moon; abundant mist at the base of the falls; dark skies; bright moonlight; moonlight not blocked by mountains; and correct rainbow geometry. Determining the precise topography and geometry to satisfy the final two criteria in the program required on-site research, and in September of 2005 the Texas State group traveled to Yosemite.

The resulting data gained from extensive surveying and on-site topographical research paid off immediately. Upon return to Texas, Olson and his team discovered why a moonbow anticipated by photographers on the evening of June 22, 2005 failed to appear despite apparently perfect conditions. Due to the unique geometry involved, Olson realized that the moonbow did in fact appear--but not until 12:45 a.m., long after the photographers had given up and gone home for the night, thus proving the value and usefulness of the Texas State researchers’ efforts.

The team’s predictions have subsequently been tested by photographers traveling to the Yosemite Valley with spectacular results. The Texas State researchers have published their moonbow predictions for the remainder of 2007, along with additional information on the positions of the moon and factors involved in the formation of moonbows online at

Be sure to check out the image gallery while you're at it.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Before Cormac McCarthy gave Oprah her guided tour of the Post-Apocalypse

Upon the news of the death of Kurt Vonnegut this week, Simon Sellars, editor and publisher of the increasingly amazing Ballardian, reminded me Thursday of a bit of trivia I had forgotten. That the late author made a brief appearance, as himself, in the most un-literary 1986 Rodney Dangerfield film Back to School.

Causing me to wonder whether there have been other similar cameos by icons of fantastic literature in lowbrow pop culture that I may have expunged from my memory.

William Gibson's lanky wandering through the frame of Bruce Wagner's Wild Palms, schmoozing with Jim Belushi and Kim Cattrall.

Philip K. Dick's 1971 guest shot in Bewitched as Darrin Stephens' paranoid new boss at ad agency McMann and Tate.

The appearance of J.G. Ballard in Airport 1973, as First Class passenger Dr. Maitland, the enigmatic psychoanalyst who diagnoses the condition of pilot Charlton Heston, a grounded astronaut who endeavors to pierce the stratosphere in a bulky 747 bearing the flag of an imaginary American airline.

Samuel R. Delany's appearance as Radagast the outré Ishtari in the special extended Nevèrÿon DVD edition of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

And my personal favorite, to be found only on the dozen or so remaining used VHS tapes circulating among strip mall used book exchanges:

The Love Boat: Lost Episodes (Volume 3). ... "Radioactive Isaac/Kleinschmidt/Beyond Patagonia."

The episode starts out as a typical variation of the formula. Following the eternally lounge Paul Williams theme, we meet the week's cast as they board. Barbara Billingsley plays a melancholy divorcee. Her kids have bought her a week on the boat; they didn't mention they bought one for Dad as well, played by Tom Bosley. Stella Stevens is Honey Spitz, a hard-partying Vegas girl searching for rescue from imminent spinsterhood. She will spend much of her time conferring with Tony Randall as Emmett Graham, a Capote-esque playwright who finds the muse in her story, and engineers a competition for her affections among Dick Shawn as a comical advertising executive, McLean Stevenson as a shy, sarcastic Midwestern arms dealer, and Marjoe Gortner as an aging rock star. And an enfeebled Jorge Luis Borges, as himself.

Four minutes in, Gopher leads the blind Borges up the plank in his incongruous vintage wool suit, hand-tailored by an Anglo-Italian master haberdasher in the Distrito Almirante Brown.

"So, Mr. Borges," says Gopher, "are you traveling alone?"

Borges' lazy, whitened eyes stare through the chipper Iowan, reimagining the universe in the nautical vignette cresting the Purser's cap.

"Can you not see the massing armies of the Heresiarchs?" queries the author.

"Uh, gee, fella, we have a lady who brought her Shih Tzu, but I don't think that's quite enough to make it an Ark. But you should talk about that with Dr. Bricker. Maybe he can give you something to help you take a nap."

As the episode proceeds, we learn that Borges and Mrs. Cleaver were married once, briefly, in the years between 1969 and 1970, adding complication to her efforts to explore a reconciliation with Mr. Cunningham. In the karaoke lounge, as Stella Stevens soothes the passengers with an otherworldly rendition of "Wichita Lineman," the episode takes a dark turn. The camera closes in on Borges' Magus eyes. The boom of nearby naval artillery rattles the ship, causing a panic. On the bridge, Captain Stubing radios out a Mayday when a squadron of Delta-wing fighters bearing strange insignia buzzes the Lido Deck. Romantic interludes are suspended as a dashing boarding party scours the ship, rounding up Robin Leach (as himself) and a handful of forgotten English character actors.

In the final scene, Isaac is in his cabin, drinking absinthe with Dr. Bricker and reading excerpts from a musty book Borges left in his cabin. The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, Thirteenth Edition (Volume XLVI: Uqbar-United States).

"The Hrönir of the perpetually broadcast American television reruns are infinite in power and proliferation," reads Isaac, "enabling those who can discover them in plain sight to recast the subtext and reinvent the world."

"What the heck's a Hrönir?" asks Dr. Bricker.

-- From "Prisoners of Uqbaristan," Strange Horizons, October 2004.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Human Habitats

"All buildings are predictions. All predictions are wrong." – Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built (Penguin, 1994.)

Brand also wrote The Media Lab about MIT's digital media research center. In this book, though, he describes how, for reasons out of the architect's control (the stakeholders couldn't agree on who would occupy it, or what they wanted, early enough in the design process), the Media Lab's building is a futuristic debacle. The building is pretentious, ill-functioning and non-adaptable. A huge sterile atrium "uses up so much of the building that actual working office and lab space is severely limited, making growth and new programs nearly impossible and exacerbating academic turf battles from the first day. Nowhere in the whole building is there a place for casual meetings, except for a tiny, overused kitchen. Corridors are narrow and barren...."

Then there's this zinger: "The Media Lab building, I discovered, is not unusually bad. Its badness is the norm in new buildings overdesigned by architects." Well, based on some ambitous modern buildings I've known and loathed, I'd say he has a good point here.

The thrust of How Buildings Learn is that buildings are happier places when they are flexible, adaptable, and can be retooled as their future unfolds. It's better to put every imaginable future scenario on the table, and make a new building's design generic and flexible enough to accommodate most of them, than to force a consensus about what the future will be. Odds are that the future situation in general - and tomorrow's technology in particular! - could not be anticipated yesterday.

Pretentious residential architecture comes in for some of Brand's criticism. Captioning an illustration of an elaborate new McMansion, he has this to say: "Prematurely complicated, this (pricey) house attempts to look as if it has been added on to for generations. As a result, actual add-ons will be difficult, and the fussy complexity greatly increases the construction and maintenance costs of the original house." On the other end of the pretentiousness scale, countless plain, boxy houses have worked just fine for successive generations of inhabitants who subdivided rooms and added on as needed. Such houses' porches are like pseudopodsconverted into an extra room as soon as the house needs one.

As an example of fruitful residential architecture, Brand singles out the basic San Francisco Victorian house. The floor plan is simple – a couple of good-sized rooms on the first floor; on one side of the house a stairway below an upstairs hallway which opens into three or four second-storey rooms. It is a practical, sturdy and adaptable kind of house, which explains why old ones are still going strong and new ones being built in San Francisco and elsewhere.

Last Sunday, I enjoyed Easter dinner with a family of four and nine other guests in a modern Victorian house. It's in the Houston Heights neighborhood, which has a goodly amount of surviving original Victorian architecture, so new Victorians fit right in. The house is just what Brand said about the Victorian floor plan. The almost windowless outer wall beside the stairs and second floor hallway is the west side of the house, its windowlessness a sensible defense against summer heat. But the bay window in the living room's front wall, and the tall windows on the east side of the house, let in plenty of daylight. The high-ceilinged living/dining room has space enough for a table for 14 people and walls painted sunny yellow with white wooden trim. There are also nice front and back porches and a pleasant narrow yard with roses. All in all a very livable home and highly congenial to guests. And isn't livable, practical, congenial space what human habitations should be all about?

All Flesh is Grass. Print, too.

cover to Pulp Magazine Holdings Directory

The above is the cover to my new book, The Pulp Magazine Holdings Directory, a guide to which issues of which pulp magazines are held in which libraries in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, and Europe.

In the Directory I covered 1,022 pulps.

Of those, 386 pulps are held in no (0) libraries in the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Europe, and a further 145 pulps have less than five total issues extant.

38% of all pulps no longer exist anywhere. And 14% of the pulps survive only in scattered copies.

Which is to say, over half the pulps ever published in the United States are either completely gone or survive in fragmented form. (And around 60% of all surviving issues are only on microfilm or microfiche). 

(The preceding doesn't include true crime pulps or the Canadian and British reprints, which would increase the number of nonexistent pulps).

So it's not possible to go into a library anywhere to look at this:

Gorilla of the Gasbags

(It's remotely possible that some pulp collector might donate this issue to a library somewhere, or open his or her collection to a stranger, but with a few prominent exceptions most pulp collectors seem to be hateful grasping antisocial illiberal pinchfists, their souls to the Devil, and the chances of a pulp collector being both generous and in possession of this issue of Zeppelin Stories are so small as to be infinitesmal).

And no member of the public can look at this in a library:

Scarlet Adventuress

Scarlet Adventuress, greatest of the bad girl pulps, completely gone, and with it characters like Nila Rand, "the Devil's Mistress," and Kara Vania, "The Lady of Doom," and stories like "Shanghai Devil Woman," "Satan's Step-Daughter," and "They Called Her Brandy Flip."

Army Romances

The stories in this issue of Army Romances are "Love Thy Brother," "Flashback!" "Sweet and Hot," "Sweet Geisha," "Kiss of Dreamy Delight," "Do-Nut Girl," "When a G.I. Wants to Marry," "Dangerous Love," and "Slave of the Amazons." The titles are quite a bit at odds with the cover, but no one will ever have the chance to discover whether the cover was a salacious lie, or if BDSM pleasures are to be found in "Kiss of Dreamy Delight."

Confessions of a Stool Pigeon

I know nothing about The Confessions of a Stool Pigeon ("By One of Them," let's not forget), but I'm sure the stories would be enjoyable in an overwrought, the-miseries-of-crime way. I'll never get to read those stories, though. 

Real Forbidden Sweets

A conservative estimate is that only 35% of spicy pulp issues--not pulps, issues--survive. One of the most popular genres of pulps is reduced to just over a third of its total output. It's likely that the missing 65% is so similar to the surviving stories that researchers can generalize about the genre based on a little over a third of what's left--but we'll never know for sure, will we?

Daring Confessions

The numbers are better for the romance pulps--59% of all romance pulp issues survive--but only two issues (of 175) of Cupid's Diary survive, less than a third (of 146 issues) of Live Stories survives, 0 issues (of 118) survive of Romance, and less than a quarter of all issues of Ranch Romances survive--and Ranch Romances published 854 issues from December, 1924 to November, 1968.

And, finally, consider the hero pulps, which is what most people think of when they see or hear the word "pulps."

The Spider

The undisputed Big Names among pulp heroes were The Shadow, Doc Savage, the Phantom Detective, and The Spider. All 325 issues of the seven pulps The Shadow appeared in survive. All 181 issues of Doc Savage/Doc Savage Science Detective survive. All 170 issues of The Phantom Detective survive.

But The Spider? 118 issues, Oct. 1933-Dec. 1943. 10 are held in libraries. Oh, many more than those ten have been reprinted--there's a handy list of reprints which tells you which issues were reprinted, and where--but for poor academics like me, paying $25-$35 per reprint isn't feasible.

I could go on, but it would just get (more) depressing.

Of course, all of this is a good corrective to a writer's dreams of immortality. If stories about the Spider can so easily vanish, what chance does the average author now have? One of the best selling fantasy authors of all time was the Reverend Charles Monroe Sheldon, who wrote In His Steps in 1899. By 1934, it had sold 8 million copies. (In His Steps is a Utopia about what the world would be like if everyone followed Christ's teachings--and Utopias are generally classified as fantasies). There are several hundred copies available in libraries around the United States--but do you know anyone who's read In His Steps?

In other words:

I met a reader from an antique bookstore
Who said: Two vast and poetastering series novels, parts two and seven
Stand in the dollar bin. On the back of one,
Half-obscured, a bearded visage protrudes, whose smirk
And curled lip and sneer of self-satisfaction
Tell that this author well those passions read
To best exploit his audience, written in these lifeless things,
His hand which mocked them even as his bank account fed.
And on the title page these words appear:
"My name is ****** ******, Best-Selling Author:
Look on my sales, ye critical darlings, and despair!"
None of his other books remain. Round the decay
Of that bloated series, boundless and cluttered,
The doorstop trilogies stretch far away.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Dr. Ballard, please call surgery

Bondage photos inside astronaut's car

Associated Press
April, 10, 2007

ORLANDO — A police search of former astronaut Lisa Nowak’s car turned up bondage photos on a computer disk, British currency and pills, according to documents released today by prosecutors.

A judge last week agreed to unseal some of the documents in the Nowak’s case.

She is accused of trying to kidnap a rival for a space shuttle pilot’s affections.

Nearly all of the 16 images found on the disk depicted bondage scenes, according to a forensic examination report by the Orlando Police Department. Some of the images showed a nude woman while others were drawings.

The documents did not make clear if Nowak was the woman in the photos or who the disks belonged to.

Also found were nearly $600, 41 British pounds and four brown paper towels with 69 orange pills. It was not clear what the orange pills were. Investigators also examined two USB drives found in the car that contained family pictures, digital movies and NASA related materials.

They concluded that information found on the disk or the two USB drives did not have any direct evidence related to the attempting kidnapping, the report said.
Nowak’s attorney, Donald Lykkebak, declined to comment Tuesday on the newly released documents.

Nowak was arrested in February after police say she drove from Houston to Florida to confront Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman. Authorities have said Nowak had an affair with Shipman’s boyfriend, Bill Oefelein. She pepper-sprayed Shipman through a partially lowered car window, an arrest affidavit said.

Police said they found a BB gun, new steel mallet, a knife and rubber tubing in Nowak’s possession. Nowak, 43, pleaded not guilty to attempted kidnapping, burglary with assault and battery. NASA released Nowak from the astronaut corps a month after her arrest.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Research is never done

One upcoming project of mine uses Venus as the setting. It isn't the Amtorian's action-oriented pulpy Venus, though, but rather the singularly hellish world that we now know is a far cry from the "Earth's twin" entry in most science textbooks from the 1950s and 60s. The rub, though, is that I'm not a planetologist or an astronomer or have any science background beyond a keen interest in space science developed while I was still in elementary school. Which means that most of the real research materials I have access to--from various popular (to not-so-popular) science books on Venus to articles in Icarus and the like are often so far over my head I feel like I'm sitting at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. There's a reason why my chosen profession is journalism after all. Fortunately, there are plenty of mailing lists and message boards around where I can pick up on really interesting developments in space science written in a language even semi-competent lay people (such as myself) can comprehend. Such as this recent update on the ESA's Venus Express mission:
Tracking alien turbulences with Venus Express
European Space Agency

New images and data from ESA's mission to Venus provide new insights into the turbulent and noxious atmosphere of Earth's sister planet. What causes violent winds and turbulences? Is the surface topography playing a role in the complex global dynamics of the atmosphere? Venus Express is on the case.

Venus' atmosphere represents a true puzzle for scientists. Winds are so powerful and fast that they circumnavigate the planet in only four Earth days - the atmospheric "super-rotation" - while the planet itself is very slow in comparison, taking 243 Earth days to perform one full rotation around its axis.

At the poles things get really complicated with huge double-eyed vortices providing a truly dramatic view. In addition, a layer of dense clouds covers the whole planet as a thick curtain, preventing observers using conventional optical means from seeing what lies beneath.

Venus Express is on the contrary capable of looking through the atmosphere at different depths, by probing it at different infrared wavelengths. The Ultraviolet, Visible and Near-Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIRTIS) on board is continuing its systematic investigation of Venus' atmospheric layers to solve the riddle of the causes for such turbulent and stormy atmosphere.

The images presented with this article focus on Venusian atmospheric turbulences and cloud features, whose shape and size vary with planetary latitudes. At the equator, clouds are irregular and assume a peculiar "bubble"-shape. At mid latitudes they are more regular and streaky, running almost parallel to the direction of the super rotation with speed reaching more than 400 kilometres per hour. Going higher up in latitude, in the polar region, the clouds end up in entering a vortex shape.

With its multi-wavelength eyes, VIRTIS can observe the atmosphere and the cloud layers not only at different depths, but also both in the day-and night-side of the planet - a characteristic that allows an overall assessment of the "environmental" causes that can be at the origin of such an atmospheric complexity.

At the equator, the extremely violent winds of the super-rotation are in constant "battle" with other kinds of local turbulences, or "regional" winds, creating very complex cloud structures.

One type of regional wind is due to the strong flux of radiation from the Sun reaching the atmosphere of the planet on the day-side. This flux heats up the atmosphere creating convective cells, where masses of warm air move upwards and generate local turbulence and winds.

On the night-side there is obviously no flux from the Sun, but the clouds' shape and the wind dynamics are somehow similar to that we see on the day-side. So, scientists are currently trying to understand if there is any mechanism other than "convection" responsible for the equatorial turbulences, both on the day- and night-side of Venus.

For instance, VIRTIS imaged clouds over Alpha Regio, an area close to the equator. This area is characterised by a series of troughs, ridges, and faults that are oriented in many directions, with surface features that can be up to 4 kilometres high. There might be a connection between the surface topography and the local atmospheric turbulence which is observed in this area. This and other hypotheses are being investigated by the Venus Express science teams using data from several instruments.

Actually, the Venusian topography may play an important role also in the global atmospheric dynamics. Understanding this surface-atmosphere connection is one of the major objectives of Venus Express - something to be verified in the whole course of the mission.

In many ways, advances in science make a writer's job more difficult. Unless you're working on an outright pulp throwback, you no longer have the free hand Burrough's did to invent a spectacular setting on an unknown world cloaked in clouds. Robot probes and increasingly-sophisticated ground-based observations have done away with the steamy, jungle-covered Venus of yesteryear. On the plus side, science has helped a great deal, unveiling mind-boggling environments never dream possible a century ago. The settings are far more exotic than anyone ever dream possible, just in disturbingly harsh ways. Instead of inventing a consistent world, now writers educate themselves on the actual conditions and environment there--and this gives rise to all sorts of narrative potential.

The pitfall, of course, is that if you cut corners in your research, some sharp-eyed reading is going to call you on it within five minutes of your story seeing print. So much the price of progress. But hey, I love this stuff and would read it anyway. Writing at least gives me the opportunity to use "I'm working" as an excuse.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Jump the fence

And find some resurrection.

Alexis has it right. The unexpected and incongruous appearances of nature amid the dim din of urbanity give us portals we too rarely look through.

Spring is breaking out with gusto across the Northern Hemisphere. After the long grey dormancy, green nature and frisky wildlife dance across the secret interstitia of the cityscape, providing the perfect antidote to break the postmodern haze for those who can slow down long enough to widen the aperture of their senses and take in the rich light.

Practitioners of speculative fiction persistently imagine a post-urban future in which mankind's disregard for the environment leaves a vacant tablet of desiccated and silent nature as grey as its abandoned concrete superstructure. The most recent compelling example being Cormac McCarty's The Road, its central character a devastated landscape populated only by nature's ghosts.

Surely these kinds of speculation are just another variation of man's hubris, the anthro-centric notion that we have the power to destroy nature. I think it more likely that, if humanity receded back into the caves of abandoned tenements, nature would rapidly tear down the evidence of human hives, cracking the concrete and healing the wounds of the earth with adaptive genius. My evidence for this supposition is the wonders I see every day in the midst of my own busy metroplex.

There are the myriad species that in my short life have adapted to human environments and flourished. The turkey vultures that hang glide through the thermal release of hot interstate blacktop and feast on roadkill. The peregrines and hawks that carom off the currents between the skyscrapers and fetch the tiny mammals who live off restaurant trash. The grackle who loiter at streetside cafes and scam their way into free french fries. Alexis' monk parakeets, the descendents of escaped pets who colonize the arc lights over the intramural fields north of my house.

More importantly, every city harbors pockets of wild nature. Most downtowns channel pre-settlement rivers and streams under the concrete skin of the city, like Austin's Little Shoal Creek, or the Hartford River, which eccentric canoeists aquatically spelunk with headlamps, studying graffiti like Neolithic cave paintings. In Austin, covert nature is all over the place. The secret tunnel city of the voles buried in the tall grass under the Loop 1 Mopac freeway. The schools of black tadpoles in the toxin-rich creeks that drain North Austin into the Colorado River. The opossum that scavenge alley trash after dark. The screech owls that greet early-rising writers with alien hoots in the pre-dawn moonlight. And the river itself, where, below the dam, a canopy of tall virgin timber on the banks hosts a fresh array of fauna that has settled in to the latest paradigm.

Most of the Lower Colorado, our geographic spine, has been dammed up since the 1930s, producing three riverine "lakes" within the city limits that are more landscaping features than natural environments. But on the other side of the Longhorn Dam that holds in "Town Lake," the Colorado returns to its natural channel, providing a refuge habitat for all sorts of shallow water-feeding birds and river predators. This stretch of the river is pure urban negative space — only a thin stand of trees protects it from dense industrial uses on either side — starting in the middle of the East Austin barrio, passing the mothballed Air Force base that now serves as Austin's spiffy airport, industrial pits, invisible factories, then southeast to Moorcock country.

In late spring, the herons and egrets stand in the shallows beneath the dam like predatory supermodels, waiting for the bottom-draining pour-off to deliver the big bass from the cool bottom of the lake. Mexican guys from the neighborhood hang out there too, casting their rods in the deep containment tanks, occasionally producing mutant catfish.

My preferred canoe put-in is under the Montopolis Bridge, a mud parking lot under the shade of transecting freeway overpasses leading to Houston, Bastrop, the Hill Country and the Airport, a popular neighborhood beer drinking, wading, and water spraying off-roading spot, where the Cub Scout finds used hypodermic syringes from time to time. At the edge of the lot there is a battered sign marking the area as the "Colorado River Preserve."

On the shaded exterior right angles of the concrete overpasses, huge colonies of cliff swallows have built their condomiums of mud and spit, feasting at dusk on the big bugs that swarm the arc lights.

Downriver, it is a world of wild green. Secret lagoons full of turtles the size of tennis rackets, baking themselves on little islands of dumped concrete, the young displaying their fresh canvases of nature's body art. An osprey flies low, a white Stuka dappled in dark muddy browns, carrying a dripping freshkill rat in its talons. Further down, a pair of osprey work on making eggs in one of the tall trees.

It's their world, we're just living in it.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Parrot Paradox

The mass of twigs on the lowest rung of this power tower is home for a colony of parrots. Also the twigs on the middle rung, and I think they're starting a penthouse on the top rung too. They are a species called monk parakeets, native to the temperate regions of South America. Wild colonies of these birds are quite firmly established in Houston, Dallas and Austin, in all of which places I've seen and admired them. Handsome vivid green psittacines with long tapered parrot-tails. They evidently think that power towers are a fine place for their colonial nests. Near where I live, deep within the city limits of Houston, these South American parrots swoop and chortle in the air over a herd of horses (paints, bays, palominos) grazing in the power line right-of-way between two of the most-traveled thoroughfares in the city.

Civilization utterly disrupts whatever natural ecology it touches. And at this point, civilization touches the whole face of the Earth and another few planets besides. A small community of forward-thinking scientists are engaged in Mars exploration planetary protection studies, not just to protect Earth from Mars microbes, but also to protect Mars from being contaminated by living things from Earth! On Mars and on Earth, ecological chaos is not a happy prospect. And yet: I can appreciate the joie de vivre of the misplaced parrots on a sunny day like today. I'd like to think that enjoying watching the parrots is a good sentiment, an extension of being truly dismayed by how much humanity resembles a plague species on Earth – and yet able to love other people.

Contradictions demand resolution into one term or the other. Either this or that. Good vs. bad. Black or white. Sometimes a contradiction is irresolvable: an endless war, or an irresistible force and immoveable object staring each other down until something breaks. Paradoxes work differently. This AND that, yin and yang – order and chaos. Death and life. A Friday that commemorates a heinous execution perpetrated by a militaristic state; and yet this Friday is the one called Good. When I have to live with opposites as tense and charged as a live power wire – I'd much rather the opposites be paradox. Paradoxes form the kind of existential space in which we can be alive and in love with the world.

Paradoxes persist. So, it seems, do parrots.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

We interrupt your regularly-scheduled blog...

I normally don't link to my other, personal blog, but I'm making an exception just this once. I've announced my candidacy for president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, and hope to gather as much support as I can before the election. Please spread the word.