Thursday, December 31, 2009

Staking a Couple Claims

I work on the assumption that there really aren't any new ideas in Science Fiction. Oh, we change the names, but whether your Rambo-esque Galactic War Super Soldier is created by exoskeletal machinery, embedded cyborg stuff, genetic engineering, or nanotech, it's pretty much the same idea, just a different name. For that matter, often "Fantasy" is just another name for "SF," with "magic" replacing "technology" (example: what's the difference between a "scrying spell" and a spy satellite? Just the "genre" note on the spine of the book). So, NO NEW IDEAS. Only Old Ideas in New Combinations. The "New Stuff" in SF is in how it relates to characters, society, how we see the gadgets and people interacting.

Having said that, and having carefully perused The Last Protector to make sure every Sci-Fi gimmick in it had been used in at least a half-dozen prior works (not to mention that "everything in here is a bleepin' cliche!" is the best way to assure you'll never be accused of plagiarism), I fear I may have inadvertently slipped in Something Original. If not a completely new idea, a significant new variation on an old idea. Namely, alcohol-fueled nanotech.

It was kind of a one-shot gag, a way to signal that something weird was going on: Scrornuck, the hero of the piece, knocks back several full-strength beers without getting a buzz, the Breathalyzer(tm)-equivalent machine says his blood alcohol is 0.00%... Obviously something strange is happening, and later on, we find out just where the alcohol went.

But, having read a few nanotech-using SF books of late, I've noticed that I haven't seen anybody else suggest that nanotech might run on alcohol (in fact, nobody seems to be terribly concerned about what it does use for fuel). So I did some Google searches, and again came up dry as Moore County, Tennessee (which, though it's home of the Jack Daniel's distillery, prohibits the sale of alcoholic beverages). Indeed, what I found is better represented by this request from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (click here), which is asking only for nanotech that would help determine alcohol levels and concentrations in tissues. Seems to me they're missing the bigger opportunity. Consider this scenario: It's New Year's Eve (which, in fact, it is as I write this). Before going out, you swallow a pill loaded with nanobots (or, alternatively, they're already in your bloodstream doing other useful things). They've been programmed to start consuming alcohol at 12:01 AM. You then party all night, you're pretty far into the bag by the time the ball drops in Times Square, and then... click! Schlurp (on a nano scale, of course)! And at 12:02, you're good to drive home... Think there'd be a market for this kind of nanotech? I do...

I really wish I'd explored the idea of blood-and-tissue-borne, alcohol-powered nanotech a bit further in The Last Protector. Oh, well... there's always the next book... And in the meantime, till I write that book, I'm gonna sit here on this idea and yell like a two-year-old, "MINE! MINE! MINE!"

And in the second Claim I'm Staking this morning, I found the Twitter name MyBeerTalkin wasn't taken. Given the popularity of ShitMyDadSays and similar Twits, I'm astonished. So naturally I grabbed it. Not sure what I'll do with it. Maybe best to let the beer talk...

(Later: Thought about this some more and concluded it's probably not a good idea. Better to let me talk, and let somebody else's beer do the Twitter thing. Beer is a complex subject, not well served by 140 character messages. On to things with some meat on their bones...)

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Today's numbers: 46,253; 159; 195; 51.

No, they're not the winning Lotto numbers; they're the numbers I get when I ask Google how many books are out there with titles that begin "The Last (something or other)." I got curious because I have this book out there called The Last Protector, and I found myself thinking, "I bet there are a bazillion books out there with similar titles." So I did a little checking, and here's what I came up with:
  • 46,253: the number of hits Google returns when you ask it to search for fiction books in the English language whose titles contain "The Last"
  • 159: the number of books Google displays when you start working your way through the results. Why it stops after the first 159 is a mystery to me. Are the other 46,084 all duplicates? And why isn't my book among the 159 it lists?
  • 195 is the number of hits Google returns when you ask it to search for science fiction books whose titles contain "The Last"
  • 51 is the number of books Google actually displays. Again, I have no idea why it doesn't display the other 144 it claims to have found. At least The Last Protector appears among the 51 that Google displays. So, my existence is validated. I think. In the Googleverse, at least.
I'm still puzzling over why The Last Protector doesn't come up in the hit list that Google generates when I look for fiction books whose titles contain "The Last..." The hit in the SF category demonstrates that Google knows the book exists, so I have to wonder--are books only allowed to exist in one category? Is SF not considered a subset of fiction? Does Google somehow think the book isn't in English (that's what I get for using words like "scrornuck")? Or does Google know something I don't--that all the sci-fi stuff I thought I'd made up about alternate universes and time travel and stuff is actually exactly how things work?


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Unclear on the Concept (Internet Content Division)

A couple weeks ago I was watching the "Daily Show" over on (because I'm too cheap to buy even basic cable), and the video stream broke for a commercial. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Screen went blank, I got the little "spinning wheel of pain" for ten seconds or so, and then this message appeared:
Let's see if I can list all the things that are just wrong about this...
  • They're apologizing because they can't rot my brain with a commercial--in other words, they assume I'm disappointed because they couldn't shove a brain-rotting ad in my face
  • They're giving me advice about how to make sure I won't miss the next commercial--in other words, they assume I have such a desire to watch ads that I'll actually screw around with my computer's settings so the ads come in properly
  • And they think I'll email their support folks if I'm unable to receive all the mind-numbing commercials I'm entitled to
This just might be a new record in the category of Unclear On The Concept. Or, perhaps, a sign of the extent to which our society is hooked on advertising. After all, it's said that people who hate football still have Super Bowl parties--to sit and watch the ads. And a few weeks back, as part of the marketing campaign for the movie Avatar, Fox TV ran an ad on Sunday night, reminding people to tune in Monday night to see... an ad for the movie.

A society that hooked on advertising is just a little scary, folks...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Lengthy Pontification About Copyright

Been reading a lot lately about copyright issues. Y'know, "piracy" of recordings, electronic books, movies, and so forth; debates over the wisdom of digital rights management technology; strange stories like the one in which Amazon had to silently delete some books from its customers' Kindle machines because Amazon had erroneously assumed George Orwell's work was in the public domain. Or the stories of huge record companies suing little old ladies whose idea of "contemporary music" is still Al Jolson, because their grandkids had downloaded bootleg copies of Metallica's latest (I found the last one hard to believe--Metallica's fans are of my generation, old enough to have grandkids, not to be grandkids...). It's a strange situation indeed. Almost chaos.

As an author with a book out in the marketplace, I have a certain vested interest in seeing the current copyright system continue. I like those royalty checks (and I'd like 'em more if they were bigger. Click one of those links to the right, please...). But I also spent twenty-six years of my life in the telecom and software industry, where I learned a lot about the nature of digital technology. And I made the mistake of studying history. In the process, I learned a few things.

First: copyright isn't something handed down on stone tablets atop Mount Sinai. It's a human invention, a means to an end--in particular, a way for people to turn their creativity into food, shelter and maybe even a few luxuries of life. And this is to be encouraged, because since at least the days of Hammurabbi we've believed that it's good for civilization for us to encourage creative people. This is specifically mentioned in the US Constitution, which says the purpose of copyrights and patents is To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries. 

Second: the definition of copyright has changed over time, in response to changes in culture and particularly changes in technology. Before the development of large-scale printing technology, "copyright" meant, literally, the right to make a copy of a document. The classic case, in seventh-century Ireland, was decided along the precedent of animal husbandry: "to every cow its calf; to every book its copy." That is, if you loaned somebody your cow, you still owned any calves that cow produced while in your neighbor's custody. In the same way, if you loaned your precious codex to your neighbor, and he made (by hand) a copy of it, the copy was rightfully yours unless you'd made some prior arrangement. For instance, perhaps you'd allow the borrower to make two copies, one of which was to be returned to you and the other of which the borrower could keep. Or maybe you'd let somebody else copy your book in return for being allowed to make a copy of something from their library. This made sense in a time when books were copied by hand, and each copy was therefore precious. 

Our current system of intellectual property (the creator owns not just the physical artifact, but the very words themselves) and per-copy royalties derives directly from properties of printing technology. In particular, the master/copy relationship created by the printing plates. The master (the plate) is expensive, but it creates an unlimited number of cheap copies. That's what gives the words themselves their value, and establishes both the concept of owning the words and the concept of per-copy royalties. In addition, because you can't make cheap copies without the master (ever try to photocopy an out-of-print book?), it's easy to prevent piracy: you just keep the plates locked up in a safe place. And, for additional security, you make unauthorized possession of plates a crime (every now and then you'll hear of someone arrested for possession of printing plates that could be used to make counterfeit money--even if the perp has not actually printed any bogus cash. Possession of the plates is sufficient to prove guilt).

This has been a pretty robust system for making money off books, and in the last century we've found it extends well to things like photographs, movies and recorded music--largely because the technologies used for these media have the critical properties of the printed book (photos and movies use a negative, which can be kept secure; vinyl records were stamped from a hard-to-produce master; CDs and DVDs are mass-produced by a photographic process). 

But the times they are a-changing, and that brings me to my next discovery.

Third: digital technology breaks the model created by the printing plate. In the digital world, any copy can be a master for making more copies. Oh, you can try to make this harder with DRM or proprietary encodings or copy-protect scrambling... but at some point, the data has to go into the clear so the customer can use it, and at that point it can be hijacked. You can pass Draconian laws against copying (or even possessing the technology to copy, as in the "Digital Millenium Copyright Act"), but they're hard to enforce when the underlying technology says, "go ahead and copy; it's easy!" And anyway, when you get to the point of prosecuting and suing the very people who should be your best customers, you kinda suspect your business model's got a problem.

So, what's going to happen? I believe that copyright as we know it is going to change, whether we like it or not. We're going to have to find a new way to transform creativity into cash. We already see some signs of this, particularly in the music field: Apple's iTunes Store model is built around the idea that you sell the stuff so cheaply that most of your customers will just buy the song rather than going to the effort of locating, downloading, and disinfecting a bootleg copy. Radiohead's experiment in "set your own price" (on the album "In Rainbows") demonstrated that people will pay for something they can get for free (thus shooting the knees out from under classic economic theory). Over in China, where just about everything is pirated, performers accept that they won't make money selling discs, so they make their money in sponsorships instead. Back in this country, Prince experimented with simply giving the disc to everybody who bought a concert ticket, turning the disc into a ticket-selling tool.

Similar things are happening in the publishing industry. Some publishers give away free downloads--often early books by an author who's got something new out in print, or perhaps the first book in a multi-volume series. Baen's got a whole library of SF (both classic and brand new) that you can download for free. Authors put them up voluntarily, in the belief that at some point you'll part with some cash because you like a particular author's work. How about books derived from movies or video games, sold for cheap (or perhaps given away entirely) and financed by sales of the DVDs or game cartridges? How about books financed through product placement? For that matter, it might be interesting to experiment with the "name your own price" scheme that Radiohead used.

There are lots of possibilities--all we need to do is go back to the basic question of "how do I turn my creativity into money?" and the constraint that once it's in digital form, it's going to be freely copied. With those things in mind, a new model of copyright (or perhaps many new models) will emerge.

I think it will be fairly easy for creators and consumers to arrive at a new model for their business relationship; I think it's already happening (again, consider "In Rainbows"). It's the middlemen--publishing companies, record companies, and so forth--who'll have to make the biggest adjustment, because the whole system of middlemen grew and evolved in a way that optimized it to the intellectual property/royalty business model. This is particuarly true of the biggest middlemen, the ones who operate on the "blockbuster" model (in which "success" is defined as "at least a million copies sold"). That model is so optimized to the IP/royalty environment that I wonder if companies built around it will still be around in twenty years.

Smaller middlemen, such as small/medium press publishers and indie record companies, will probably adjust much more easily. They still provide a valuable service of finding the good stuff (contrary to the beliefs of some in the self-publishing universe, I don't think the vast majority of readers are going to start paying for the privilege of rooting through the slush pile), and polishing it into a ready-for-prime-time form. But the future is going to be different, I suspect.

Hey, a new model of copyright is one of those things that only comes along every several centuries. It's going to be an adventure. We should be trying to enjoy it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Orwell Would Be Proud

Congressional Democrats have apparently figured out that they've got a better chance of passing a "public option" health plan if they re-brand it as "Medicare Part E," where the E is supposed to stand for "Everybody." And, predictably, right-wing commentators are up in arms about this attempt to deceive the public by changing the program's name.

Of course, all concerned doth protest a bit much, because such manipulation of language has been a standard part of politics for years. See the PBS "Frontline" documentary, "The Persuaders" (which you can watch online here). Part 6 of the broadcast describes the Republicans' successful effort to gain public support for a repeal of the inheritance tax--through re-branding it as the "death tax." Consultants found that while voters had a generally positive response to the term "inheritance tax," seeing it as justly taking some of the ill-gotten gains that the filthy rich were passing on to their worthless and lazy offspring, the term "death tax" summoned up visions of poor Uncle Fred being unable to give Aunt Martha a proper burial because the government had taxed her demise. In truth, of course, the inheritance tax already had something like a million-dollar exemption, so if Uncle Fred was having trouble burying Aunt Martha, he must have been planning one lavish funeral. But this is politics, where truth matters much less than perception.

And manipulation of language for political gain wasn't new when the Republicans pulled the "death tax" thing. When I was but a young sprout, borrowing government money to pay for my college education, I received what was called a "National Defense Student Loan." President Kennedy had launched this program in the 1960s, in the belief that we needed lots of college graduates (especially in science and engineering) to defeat the Red Menace and win the Cold War. But by the early '70s, with "detente" the word of the day and the public pressuring Congress to cut the defense budget and increase spending on domestic priorities like education, Tricky Dick Nixon figured out he could pull of some re-branding sleight-of-hand: the student-loan program moved from the Department of Defense to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and its name changed to "National Direct Student Loan." Yep, Nixon didn't even change the acronym! Nor did he change the amount of money spent on student loans, or the amount spent on bombs. All that changed was one word in the name.

You can go back further, of course: in 1947, under Harry Truman, the former War Department was re-branded as the Defense Department. Doesn't that sound a lot more peaceful? "War Department" sounds like a bunch of military badasses looking to start a fight; "Defense Department" sounds like the John Wayne character who never throws the first punch. Oddly enough, the US seems to have gotten into more wars of choice in the sixty years since the re-branding than it did in the previous 150 years.

All of this, of course, goes back to what Orwell said in his classic 1984: that language matters. If you can control the words people use to debate an issue, then you control the debate, and ultimately the issue itself.

Which brings us back to the First Law of Science Fiction: the more things change... (the rest is left as an exercise for the reader)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Cosmic Coke Bottle

I just finished the "Muse Online Writers' Conference," including a session about keeping the science part of science fiction reasonably accurate. By coincidence, a friend passed me a link to this story at Jupiter's Moon Europa Has Enough Oxygen For Life. According to the article, scientists have estimated that the frozen surface of Europa turns over and remakes itself rapidly enough that oxygen, produced by cosmic radiation striking the surface, would make it down through the ice to the 100-kilometer-deep ocean believed to exist between the surface and the rocky core. Given abundant oxygen, or so the thinking goes, Europa should be able to support complex and interesting life, things equivalent to the fish found in our oceans.

I'm not so sure. Europa apparently has a steady supply of oxygen, but does it also have a mechanism for recycling the oxides (primarily carbon dioxide) produced by living creatures? On earth, we don't have simply water, oxygen and carbon; we've got a system of unstable equilibrium in which life constantly cycles the components around: CO2 plus water plus sunlight plus plants creates carbohydrates (like sugar) and free oxygen; carbohydrates plus oxygen plus animals (and plants at night) returns us to CO2, water, and waste heat. So while energy passes through the system, downgrading from light to heat in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics, mass cycles endlessly around within the system. Oxygen, water and carbon dioxide levels remain approximately the same, in a wonderful unstable equilibrium.

But what of Europa? Here, if the scientists are right, we have a constant influx of oxygen, courtesy of cosmic rays interacting with something on the surface. The article doesn't say what, but I assume it's water (since Europa's surface is ice). The oxygen dissolves in the moon's abundant water, while the hydrogen most likely leaks off into space. So, over time, the concentration of oxygen in Europa's ocean increases--unless that oxygen reacts with something.

That something would be carbon and other reactive elements being released from Europa's core, which is supposedly made of rock, much like Earth. Okay... so, with or without life (oxygen doesn't need life in order to react with carbon; it's just doin' what comes naturally), as carbon-containing materials are brought up from Europa's core (the core is heated by tidal forces as Europa orbits Jupiter), they react with oxygen to form CO2, which goes... where?

Well, CO2 dissolves in water, forming a weak acid solution. As far as I can tell, there's no mechanism described for turning that CO2 back into carbon and oxygen, so the dissolved CO2 will just pile up, rendering Europa's ocean more and more acidic, and consuming carbon from the planet's core until either the carbon's all gone (at which point any life starves) or the water's too acidic to support life (in which case any life expires). Either way, the situation doesn't look good for Arthur Clarke's Europan creatures.

Of course, how quickly this happens and how far it goes depends on a number of factors. How much water is in Europa's ocean? How quickly do the oxygen (introduced at the surface) and carbon compounds (introduced by hydrothermal events at the sea floor) mix--is it slow diffusion in a largely stagnant ocean, vigorous circulation due to a warm core, some form of stratification, or what? Bodies of water on earth display all of these behaviors--which one characterizes Europa? And just how much carbon dioxide can be dissolved in an ocean of that size? Is there enough carbon in Europa's rocks to reach this limit? How acidic will the water eventually get? I suppose there is a window--which, if life is lucky, is several billion years in length--between the start of these processes and their eventual end in carbon exhaustion or acidification.

And one more thing to think about: after enough CO2 builds up, Europa would have an ocean of carbonated water, making it the solar system's Coke bottle...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Instrument of War?

The "sonic weapon"--a musical instrument that's also a machine of war--plays a minor role in The Last Protector, and a much larger role in my current work-in-progress, The End of the Song. So I've been doing research into the whole idea of instruments as weapons, and made some interesting and surprising discoveries.

The most famous "instrument of war" (there's even a video series with that title) is the bagpipe. It has quite a reputation--there are stories of pipers leading the Scots into battle, only to have the enemy turn tail and run at the first sound of the pipes. To my disappointment (since I play the pipes myself), these yarns seem to be little more than legend. In truth, the Scots fought mostly among themselves and against the English, both of whom were already familiar with the sound of the pipes and therefore not very likely to find it frightening. Worse, the pipes suffer from the "inverse-square-law" problem: because the sound radiates in all directions, its intensity drops off very rapidly with distance. What's deafening at ten feet is pleasantly melodious at twenty and almost lost in the background noise at a hundred.

So where did the legend of the pipes as psychological weapon come from? Part of it could be association. The Scots had earned a reputation as formidable warriors, and the sound of the pipes meant the Scottish fighters were close behind. It's not the sound itself that's terrifying; it's what the enemy knew was coming along with the pipers. It's also possible that on one or two occasions during the imperial period, some native peoples (who'd never before heard the pipes) actually were startled by this unfamiliar shriek and fled. By the time the people learned that the sound of the pipes couldn't hurt them, they'd also learned to fear the bullets and cannon that came with the pipes. Thus are legends born.

While the bagpipe's reputation as a terrifying sonic weapon seems largely myth, modern technology is creating real sound weapons. The US military has this thing called an "LRAD" (Long Range Acoustic Device, which strikes me as one of the most unimaginative names ever), which they've supposedly used in Iraq. It's supposed to be a non-lethal crowd-control device, making a sound that drives potential rioters to disperse. The Pittsburgh police used one of these during the G20 protests last month, though the results were mixed (Jon Stewart quipped that the anarchists are probably using the LRAD's sound as their ring tone by now).

While the LRAD appears pretty crude (it just emits a loud and unpleasant noise that seems to make people move away), it does display some important advances over the bagpipe. It's a lot louder, and it focuses its sound in a narrow beam, so it should have a much greater range than the bagpipe.

So, as I work on The End of the Song, in which both bagpipes and a more advanced "sonic weapon" play important roles, I'm spending a lot of time thinking about where this kind of technology might go, what might happen if it fell into the wrong hands, and how it might be countered. Stay tuned...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Takin' Care of Business

In celebration of its tenth anniversary, Twilight Times Books, publishers of The Last Protector (and many other fine volumes) is running a sale from now through November 15th. Print editions of The Last Protector and other books are available for 30 to 50 percent off cover price. So, if you've been thinking about stocking up and giving a copy to all your friends, now is the time! Just follow this link to the TTB website.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Analyzing Dorothy

I've been thinking about Dorothy lately. Dorothy as in The Wizard of Oz. The girl who's transported from a stretch of Kansas so dull it's filmed in black-and-white, to a Technicolor land of wizards and talking scarecrows and tin men... and who, through her entire adventure in this magical land, never wavers, not even once, from her purpose of getting the hell out of Oz and back to Kansas.

There's something strange about this girl, methinks...

I understand she had good reasons to not linger too long in Oz--she had responsibilities to the farm and her family, particularly Auntie Em. But still, never even one second thought about her obsession with going back to the land of sepia-tone? That's just plain weird.

At the other and of the spectrum you have Futurama hero Philip Fry, who wakes up in the year 3000, looks out the window of the cryogenics lab, and realizes that everyone he's ever known is long dead. After thinking for a few seconds, he high-fives the air and yells, "Whoopee!"

Between these extremes we find a whole genre of fiction, going back at least as far as the Odyssey and most likely farther. The patterns are simple: main character is transported via a Plot Device (a cyclone, a malfunctioning space drive, a rift in the space-time continuum, whatever) to an exotic and different world. Then, he/she either (a) fights and struggles to get back home (whatever "home" may be), or (b) discovers the reason he/she was brought to the exotic world, and carries out a Quest (this often ends with the hero being returned home against his/her will... until the next adventure). Stories succeed or fail on just how believable the characters' responses to landing in Oz (or Barsoom, or the Future, or whatever) are--if the characters are fighting their way home, do they have a good reason to prefer Kansas to Oz? If they've chosen to stay, do I, the reader, agree with the decision to abandon whatever they left behind?

And if they're debating "should I stay or should I go?" do they sing as well as The Clash?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

You Don't Hear That Anymore

(on the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, July, 1969)

I'm old enough to remember the Apollo program, and the way people used to say, "Darn it, if they can land a man on the moon, why can't they _________ (fill in the blank with whatever pressing issue you'd like to see solved) ?" It was a good question, because going to the moon is a big and difficult task, something worthy of a great nation. If we could do the one, why couldn't we do the others? And in fact, we did a lot of those things; the Sixties saw a lot of important reforms passed: Medicare, civil and voting rights legislation, the "Green Revolution" that fed a good chunk of the world's people, the beginnings of environmentalism, and more. We weren't always fully successful, but we attempted a lot of hard things and made a lot of progress during those years. Maybe it's unfair to say that the nation accomplished these other things because we were going to the moon, but the fact that we were going to the moon proved we could do Hard Things, and it left us with no excuses for not doing the other Hard Things if we thought they needed to be done. All we had to do was make the commitment. Years later, Jim Lovell emphasized this point about the Apollo program--it required only commitment, no miracles: "We just decided to go," said Lovell. And so we went.

People rarely say "if they can land a man on the moon, why can't they...?" these days. Because, of course, we can't land a man on the moon. We haven't landed a man on the moon since 1972, when Tricky Dick Nixon drove a stake through the heart of arch enemy John Kennedy's dream. NASA now says we might get back in another dozen or so years (though it only took them eight years the first time), but given the sorry record of the Space Shuttle program, it's hard to take that promise very seriously.

'Tis a pity. Right now, we also seem unable to do much about our dismal outsourced economy, rising unemployment, forty million without health care, and so forth. Maybe if we could still say, "if we can put a man on the moon, why can't we create some good jobs here in the U.S.A.?" or "if we can put a man on the moon, why can't we get this health-care thing fixed?" or "if we can put a man on the moon, why can't we put those Wall Street fraudsters who crashed the economy behind bars where they belong?" we might just find ourselves able to take some effective action.

Alas, we can't put a man on the moon anymore. And, judging by the daily news, we can't do the other things either.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Thanks Are In Order

Last Saturday the pipe band I belong to, the Tunes of Glory, took first place in the Grade 5 competition at the Milwaukee Highland Games. Whoopee! In the picture at right, I'm leading the third column as we march out. You can watch a very nice video of our performance here:

YouTube: Tunes of Glory Milwaukee June 6 09

Now, before we all get too excited, let's keep in mind that Grade 5 is sort of the "plankton" level of the competition bagpiping food chain. There are four levels between us and the likes of the Scottish Lion 78 Fraser Highlanders. Nonetheless, it's a pretty exciting event, especially since it's the first time I've been part of the band when it won a competition.

And it's sorta strange to think that none of this would have happened had it not been for a couple of my former managers at Lucent: my old boss Gus, and former CEO Rich McGinn. Gus presented me with a kilt at a promotion party in the spring of '01, and after that, every time I wore it in public I'd find people asking me, "Do you play the bagpipes?" In time, I came to realize this was code for "Are you Scottish?" which was in turn code for "Why the #$%! are you wearing a kilt?" McGinn, of course, presided over the company as its stock fell from the stratospheric heights of the Tech Boom to its eventual position in the neighborhood of Deer Nuts (i.e., under a buck). This led to the "Five and Five" early-retirement buyout of July 2001, which gave me the free time I needed to go out and learn piping. So, to the two managers who led me into bagpiping, a hearty "thank you."

Aren't unintended consequences great?

Life Imitating Art, Or Something Like That

If you've read The Last Protector (and if you haven't, you may want to click the Instant Gratification link and buy a copy before reading the rest of this sentence), you know that a big part of the story revolves around old computer records that nobody can read anymore. It takes time--time the heroes don't always have--to find the storage media, build the necessary devices to actually read it, crack the encoding scheme and see if there's actually any "there" there. My inspiration for this part of the book was my own experience with computers--it seemed that I was constantly having problems with obsolete data storage. We'd migrate from eight-inch to five-inch to mini-floppy disks, each time discovering there was some piece of essential information that existed only in the obsolete format. Then there was the mad scramble to find a machine somewhere in the lab that could still read these old disks.

So I was more than a little amused when I came across this Associated Press news video:

YouTube: McMoon

NASA has re-discovered the images made by the Lunar Orbiter project back in the 1960s. Thousands of reels of magnetic tape had somehow escaped the dumpster and are now being digitally processed into absolutely stunning images... in a lab set up in an abandoned McDonalds. How's that for "Stranger than Fiction"?

I remember the Lunar Orbiter project of the 1960s. Given the technology of the day, the orbiter spacecraft were works of absolute genius--space-compatible high-resolution video cameras were years away, so cameras in space were film cameras. Spy satellites routinely sent film canisters re-entering the atmosphere over the Pacific, to be snagged by airplanes and rushed to the processing lab. Moon probes had no such luxury, so the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft shot film (through a pair of truly powerful cameras), developed it inside the spacecraft, and then transmitted the image back to earth one line at a time via an early version of fax-machine technology. The image data, in the form of an analog signal mapping the brightness of the film, was recorded on big spools of magnetic tape. Those spools of tape survived some four decades with their signals intact (people knew how to make magnetic tape in those days). Just as important, at least one tape drive capable of reading the tapes survived in working order (in TLP, Jape and the gang at Ranger Control aren't so lucky--they have to construct the necessary machines to read 200-year-old data files).

As it turns out, the data stored on the tapes contains much more detail and clarity than the printing systems of the 1960s could handle. With a little digital processing of the tape data, NASA's getting images with much higher quality than we got during the space race. In fact, the Lunar Orbiter images, properly processed to access all the information they contain, are the sharpest, clearest, most detailed images of the moon taken by any spacecraft... ever!

The picture accompanying this posting is the iconic "Earthrise" shot by Lunar Orbiter in 1966 (and re-shot, in color, by Apollo 8 two years later). You can click on it to see a somewhat bigger view--or you can click here to view the full-resolution version on NASA's web site (be warned, it's a pretty big file).

I'm waiting for NASA to release some of the low-angle photos, the ones taken by Lunar Orbiters grazing down to something like ten miles above the surface. Even in the old NASA book The Moon As Seen By Lunar Orbiter these shots are spectacular. In a new digital restoration, I bet they'll be absolutely staggering.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Creating a Fictional Religion

Those who've read The Last Protector know that a major (not to say the major) plot element is the so-called "Church of Spafu the Friendly Dragon." If you've ever wondered where I got the idea of creating a religion around a cartoon character, or want to read about the joys and woes of fleshing out a corporate-inspired bogus faith, you might want to skip over to Karina Fabian's Faith-Filled Fiction website, which features a two-part essay on Spafuism. The first part describes the process of creating the bogus religion, while the second (which comes after the essay on Saralee Rosenberg's "Big Fat Jewish Blockbusters") gives an overview of Spafuist doctrine.

Y'know, someday I'd like to get back to Ann Arbor and see if the "Good Shepherd and His Flock" stained-glass window featuring the burger-joint mascots looking adoringly upon the Clown is still there... Probably not. Fast-food franchise marketing stuff turns over pretty quickly.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Another Five Seconds of Fame

Yesterday (Saturday) was the St. Charles St. Patrick's Day parade, and as I have for the last several years, I marched with the Tunes of Glory Pipes & Drums. So... when I went to church this morning, people handed me copies of today's Kane County Chronicle:

Would you look at that... the piper they chose to put in the paper is none other than li'l old me. Another five seconds of fame there... at this rate, by the time I'm eighty I'll have gotten the full fifteen minutes that Andy Warhol said we'd all get.

In the accompanying article, columnist Joe Grace talks about how he's never marched in a parade, but dreams of doing so someday. It is an interesting experience--on the one hand, it's fun to see the people on the sidewalk waving and cheering, especially when you get a glimpse of someone you know. On the other hand, there's a lot to think about--playing correctly (and playing the right tune!), staying in step, and not drifting out of position in the group. I have a tendency to take longer steps than most people, which means that if I'm not careful I'll find myself well out ahead of my line--especially if I'm in the front row. In last year's downtown Chicago parade, I got far enough out ahead that another piper grabbed my belt and yanked me back into position--right as we were passing the TV cameras, of course!

It appears we're getting ready to start another tune, which is why I have only one hand on the pipe chanter and am adjusting the bag position with the other. Getting the bag tucked properly under your arm is a bit tricky when wearing the rain cape that was, alas, necessary on this cold and drizzly day.

I don't think the photographer knew me from Adam, and I really doubt that he knew I'm one of maybe two or three people in the band who actually live in St. Charles, but it's kind of cool that of all the people he could have photographed, he chose me. I'd like to think it's because I just look like a "piper," but I suspect the reality is that I just happened to be passing by when he decided to snap the picture.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Unclear on the Concept

Today we have another classic incomprehensible road sign. I photographed this one while riding the Harley down Phantom Canyon Road, between Victor/Cripple Creek and Canon City, Colorado during the summer of 1995. The sign gives the helpful warning that there may be loose gravel on the road.

Uh-huh... the whole road's gravel, of course. Is there any particular patch of it that the highway department wanted to warn me about?

It's kind of like encountering a "BUMP AHEAD" sign in Illinois, where the roads are nothing but bumps, mile after mile of them. I want to ask, which bump does the sign refer to?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Today's Road Sign

I saw this while passing through Yellowstone National Park in 2006.

I'm still not sure whether it's just a road construction sign or a deep philosophical statement about the meaning of life in general.

Monday, February 9, 2009

New Piece Up on Projects At Work Website

The Projects At Work online project management magazine has put up my latest piece, a review of Jerry Weinberg's new book, Perfect Software and Other Illusions About Testing. If you've never visited the Projects At Work site before, you'll need to do a free registration (sigh... is there anything on the Internet that you can read without filling out a registration?). Go ahead... you know you want to...

Perfect Software is a valuable book even if you don't write or test software, because it's really not so much about software or testing as it is about people: why we think we want to test things in the first place, how we see and interpret tests, how we act on their results, and how we mess up. These observations and suggestions are applicable far beyond the world of software. For instance, they could be applied to education--as I was reading and reviewing the book during my slack periods at the high school (I spend a couple days a week as a substitute teacher), I found myself wishing the people who came up with "No Child Left Behind" had read it.

You can read my review of Perfect Software by clicking here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Yeah, I've Been There

Friend of mine is suggesting we go to Colorado on the motorcycles this summer. OK, Colorado's a pretty state... where do you want to go? Oh, there? Yeah, I've been on that road; it's pretty...

His suggestion got me to thinking, just how much of the Colorado Rockies have I explored on a bike? So I took my road map and a bright orange highlighter, and traced over the roads I've traveled on my various expeditions. It seems pretty close to a complete set (click on the image to enlarge it).

I first put a wheel in Colorado in August of 1977, coming across from Utah on the way back from the Pacific coast. We camped outside of Glenwood Springs in a dreary rainstorm that continued through the next day (during which we had to sit out a long delay near Vail, because a private pilot had gotten in trouble and was trying to make an emergency landing on I-70). The rain didn't end until we passed through the Eisenhower Tunnel (which was, at the time, a single hole with one lane in each direction; the second hole wouldn't open for another two years)... and then we came down the long hill into Denver in glorious sunshine, whisked through town, found a cheap motel in the prairie town of Idalia, turned on the TV and found that Elvis had left the building for good. A strange and memorable introduction to the state...

My most recent visit was in May of 1999, too early for my own good (but timed to match a business meeting). I rode west out of Colorado Springs, and just west of Wilkerson Pass on US 24, I ran into a snowstorm. Luckily, it was a short one, and it was spring so it melted fairly quickly, and I was able to go on my merry way.

I still don't have the complete set: 13 north of Meeker, 139 south of Rangely, 141 through Gypsum Gap, 491 north of Cortez, 140, 172 and 151 around Durango, and the little stretch of US 40 between Granby and I-70 have escaped... for now. But summer's coming...

Friday, January 30, 2009

Technologies In Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear

After ordering a cup of the restaurant's strongest tea, Jape pulled a rolled-up sheet of black material from a pocket of his cape and spread it on the tabletop. "Softscroll, activate," he whispered, and within a few seconds the featureless surface came alive, displaying windows filled with words and pictures.
--From The Last Protector

I first wrote about the "softscroll," a futuristic personal computer built into a thin, flexible sheet of plastic that Jape, the time-traveling Ranger, could just roll up and stuff into a pocket, almost ten years ago. At the time, it seemed like a pretty far-out concept. But today, while subbing in the science department over at Saint Charles East, I saw a presentation on nanotechnology, and a part of the new tech being displayed was... you guessed it, "stretchable silicon," which is supposed to lead to such things as a TV that's just a paper-thin sheet of plastic you roll out on the wall, or cell phones that roll up inside a pen, or... yep, a flexible computer.

Granted, the stuff that John Rogers of the University of Illinois has created won't do quite everything the "softscroll" does... yet. And flexible computers aren't on the market... yet (good thing my book came out last May!). But "stretchable silicon" does illustrate one of the problems of writing science fiction: technology is moving forward so quickly that by the time you've written, sold, edited and released a book incorporating a "far-out" new gadget, you may find the gadget isn't very far-out at all! My friend Jerry Weinberg wrote a book called The Aremac Project, which featured a machine that could read your thoughts, and now, just a few years after its release, he's worrying in his blog that technology may have already caught up with him. He advises writers to set their SF books far enough into the future that something like this won't happen. And to get back to nanotech for a moment, it's starting to look like carbon nanotubes may very well make the "elevator to orbit" concept feasible... rendering obsolete all those great SF books in which people fly around in rockets.

I wonder if this rapid advance of technology, which makes SF gimmicks obsolete almost overnight, is part of the reason fantasy's taken off in the last few decades. Odds are the University of Illinois won't develop your story's central gimmick if it involves magic. Then again, as Clarke observed, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

It's Good to Know Where You're Not

Here's our Highway Sign of the Day:

Where I come from, you don't very often see signs that tell you what road you're not on, but in some parts of the country that's an important thing to know. This sign is (or was; I shot the picture in 1981) on Utah Route 46, just south of its intersection with US 163. I suspect the sign's there because this is pretty empty country, and if you find yourself on 46 (headed for the tiny town of Paradox, Colorado) when you meant to be on 163 headed for Monticello, you may go quite a ways before realizing your mistake.

So what was I doing here? Looking for the empty country; in particular, heading off to see the wild and scenic desert alone on a big Japanese dirtbike that I'd modified for long-distance touring. In other words, I was on something of a fool's errand, almost in the same league as that "Into the Wild" guy who walked into the Alaskan wilderness figuring to live off the land. A breakdown, a bad crash, or just a big error in my trail guide (no GPS or satellite navigation in those days!) would have meant the buzzards would get a bigger-than-usual meal. Looking back, I think I must have been slightly crazy to make this trip. But, obviously, nothing too awful went wrong, and I returned sunburned, bruised and more than a little humbled... and the buzzards went hungry. You can read about the trip, and see some pretty neat pictures, here.

When I was putting this story together, I visited a lot of web sites to make sure I had my facts more or less straight (it has been 27 years, after all). And I found that things do seem to change over time. A landmark that was called "Prostitute Butte" in '81 now sports the more politically correct name of "Lone Rock." I have a photo of a natural arch that doesn't seem to have the same name now that it had then... but it also doesn't look the same, even though it's in the same place. The creek's changed its name, or at least the spelling of the name, and the particular Jeep road I took now seems to be parts of three different Jeep roads... or perhaps it's now a mountain bike trail. And I don't recall having to pay a dollar to cross the last six hundred feet of private land.

Memory is funny stuff. Memories change over time, but reality also changes, it seems.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Winter? What's That?

I have a sort of tradition, one of those things that's kind of stupid and obsessive-compulsive if you think about it too hard, but something I've managed to maintain anyway for twenty-nine years now: getting out for a motorcycle ride at least once in every month of the year. Most years it's not that much of a challenge; even in the Frozen North that is Chicago, there are several decent days in any given winter month.

Most years, I said. Some years are tougher. Like 2009: the temperature was in the 40s on December 30 of last year, started falling (along with some snow) on New Year's Eve, and in short order we were alternating sub-zero temperatures and heavy snowfall. I was beginning to wonder whether this was the year that my streak came to an end.

Luckily, there was One Good Day in the forecast: Thursday, the 22nd. While temperatures had been in the single digits and teens, the last few days had been mostly clear and sunny, which evaporated most of the snow and ice off the roads (leaving a nice layer of salt, but that's another matter). And the forecast high for Thursday was a positively tropical thirty-five degrees, so I made my plans to haul the nineteen-year-old Harley out of the garage and go for a spin.

Of course, starting a nineteen-year-old Harley that's been sitting in an unheated garage during a long cold snap ain't exactly an easy task. The Evo Big Twin motor is pretty cold-blooded and shows little enthusiasm for cranking, let alone actually running. So I decided on a more subtle approach: at eight in the morning I started up a thousand-watt radiant heater a few feet from the bike, aimed at the engine. Then, recalling how we used to get the old Dodge to start in cold weather back in my college days, I stuck a 100-watt drop light under the carburetor. Around noon, I decided to give her a try. Twist the throttle a couple times to prime the carb, push the button, crank (slowly), crank (slower), catch, sputter... stop. Try again. And again. About the fourth try I realized which step I'd left out of the preparations: pull out the choke, dude! One more try, this time with the choke on. Catch, sputter, sputter some more, run tentatively on one cylinder for a few seconds, and settle down to a fast idle. Hooray!

So there I was, sitting in the driveway next to the snowbanks (click on the picture at right to enlarge it) with the bike more or less warmed up, wondering just where to go. The wet spots, occasional patches of slush and general coating of salt on everything convinced me that this wasn't a good day to head for my favorite twisty backroads. So I contented myself with a ride across the straight, flat state highways, about twenty-five miles each way to Sycamore, where I stopped for about half an hour (oops, make that officially twenty-four minutes, because I only put two pennies in the meter) to warm up. Then, another twenty-five miles back, turning the old bagger's odometer over the Number Of A Hundred Beasts (66600). I even explored a couple roads with modest curves on the way back.

I actually saw one other insane person out on a bike. He had no windshield and no full-face helmet, and was bundled up like the Mummy (or somebody on his way to make an unscheduled withdrawal from the quickie-mart). We exchanged waves, the camaraderie of the lunatics.

Today dawned colder--mid twenties and dropping this afternoon, with an overcast and a prediction that the next several days will be cold, with a chance of snow. Yesterday may very well have been the only decent day for riding this month. Glad I took advantage of it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Worst of Both Worlds

Today's Dilbert strip (click here to read it) really hits home for those of us who worked in Corporate America. In the story leading up to this strip, Dilbert's been given no work to do (because there's no budget), and so fritters his time away creating a profitable internet business. Then the pointy-haired boss fires him for "misusing company resources." And in today's panel, the company seizes the profitable business because it was created on company time. Dilbert, as always, gets the shaft. As usual, Scott Adams captures the essence of Corporate America: the Corporation takes everything and promises nothing. Dilbert has no job security, but anything he creates is property of the company.

It was not always that way. Back when I was still more or less starting out in the technology field, when the USA was still the world's unchallenged leader in technological innovation, a friend and I left the company where we'd helped make the cell phone a commercial product, and went off in search of new challenges (and more money, of course). We took two very different paths.

My friend went to Silicon Valley and became something of an entrepreneur. He worked for several companies, most of which paid in stock options rather than cash. If he had a brilliant idea that made the company enormously profitable, he'd end up filthy rich off his options. On the other hand, if the company went bust (which most of the Silicon Valley start-ups did), he'd find himself with no job and no money. High risk, but also the possibility of high reward. It was a fair bargain, as the success of such companies as Apple, Intel, etc., goes to show.

I, on the other hand, took a job with the Bell System. At the time, the Bell System was a huge, regulated monopoly, and the employment contract was best described as socialist. Maybe even Marxist, in the sense of "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." The contract explicitly said that anything I invented while employed at the company (and this could be read to include anything I invented on my own time) was licensed to the company. If I invented something that made a billion dollars for the company, that billion would go into the company's pocket, not mine. (In fact, I did invent something that I'm told generated a billion or so for the company, though in all fairness it took close to a hundred people to actually build the thing.) In return for giving up the right to become rich, the unwritten part of the contract pretty much guaranteed lifetime job security. There was good health care and a real pension plan, so barring some major gaffe like parking in the executive's office, I wouldn't have to worry about food, clothing and shelter for the rest of my life. Low reward, but close to zero risk. In my experience, this too was a good environment for innovation.

But Dilbert's company--like most American companies, including those that formed from the splinters of the Bell System after the 1985 breakup--wants to Have It All: they claim ownership of what the employees invent, but promise nothing in return beyond this week's paycheck. I suspect this corporate attitude is a big part of the reason the good old U.S. of A. is no longer the world's leader in technological innovation (don't believe me? Check out this Tom Friedman column in the New York Times). After all, why take the risk of innovating when somebody else gets all the benefits? I don't have any good answer (yet), but I don't think this country's going to return to it's global leadership position until this problem gets resolved. "High risk, no reward" is no formula for promoting innovation.

By the way, my friend never did get rich from developing technology. But he also invested in Silicon Valley real estate on the side, and this made him enough that he was able to retire in his 40s, move to Northern California and become an environmental philanthropist. Not a bad outcome.

Friday, January 16, 2009

More of Why I Love Computers

A while back, I posted a couple examples of digitally-created silliness. This morning, another one appeared on the New York Times website:

Only a computer would tell you to "share your thoughts," and immediately add that "comments are no longer being accepted."

Remember the grand old days of science fiction, when you could blow up a computer by posing a simple paradox like "everything I say is a lie, and I am lying to you right now"? These days, the computers not only tolerate paradoxes, they routinely create them.

Friday, January 9, 2009

A Frozen Flood!

We had our first "hundred-year flood" in the late summer of 2007, when the Fox River rose about six feet above normal, flooding several houses and yards in my neighborhood. Our second "hundred-year flood" came in June of 2008, and it was a strange one because nearly every day was sunny and dry; all the rain was falling way upstream in Wisconsin. But, again, the mighty Fox was a good five and a half feet above where it should have been. And we had our third "hundred-year flood" in September, when the leftovers of Hurricanes Gustave and Ike combined with a Pacific storm to create three days of heavy rains (and it made for one heck of a radar image).

Now, we're having our fourth "hundred-year flood," and it's the most peculiar of all: a frozen flood in the middle of winter! We had above-normal snow in November and December, so that on Christmas Eve we had something like two feet of snow on the frozen ground. Then, on Boxing Day we began a warm and wet snap that extended through December 30: two days of very warm temperatures (50s and even low 60s, very rare for this time of year) and heavy rain. By Tuesday the 30th, all the snow had melted and run into the river. Then it turned cold again. Under the ice, the river rose and fell and rose again. Right now, it's again something like five feet above normal, nearly at the top of my retaining wall, and has flooded the park, the boat launch, and several yards. Only this time, the flood's in the form of ice. In the picture at right, you can see how the ice is just inches below the top of what is normally a five-and-a-half-foot wall. This is just a few inches shy of the highest level it reached in '07.

Still, I'm in pretty good shape compared to my neighbors. The park and boat launch, for instance, have become a skating rink. And if you look in the background of this photo (click on it to see a larger version), you'll see that the neighbor's boathouse is almost half-submerged--standing in about three feet of water, with a good six inches of ice on top. Things are going to be very interesting when the river goes down and this ice starts to break up and move.

And things are going to be even more interesting for the people living in this house, as it's completely surrounded by a frozen moat!

The river itself is behaving in strange ways. There is pretty solid ice stretching out about fifty feet from the shore (on this side). Beyond that, it goes back and forth between solidly choked with floating ice and wide open flowing water. The ice seems to pile up, moving more and more slowly until it finally stops, and then the huge plug of pack ice moves downstream as a unit. Sometimes big slabs of the stuff stand up on end and roll over with a crunching sound. Ah, life in the Arctic...

The weather forecast calls for a bit more snow, followed by serious temperature drops--by next Thursday we're looking at a high temperature below zero. This combination of high water, swift current and intense cold could lead to some very interesting river behavior. Let's just hope it doesn't end up like the old curse, "May you live in interesting times!"

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Was This Thing Programmed in England?

One of the side-effects of ubiquitous cell phones is that parents have become Ground Control when their kids head off on road trips. If you're a parent of a teen, or a twenty-something for that matter, you know all about this--the phone rings, and it's the fruit of your loins (or a friend thereof), calling from the middle of nowhere and asking how to get somewhere else. Of course, you are expected to figure out just where in the middle of nowhere said offspring are, and then plot a route to the desired destination. And you do, because you're a Parent and that's what Parents do, even if your "kids" are now grown-up and married and living in another country.

In the search for an uninterrupted night's sleep, many parents have looked for the technological fix, buying the kid a global positioning system (GPS), complete with turn-by-turn directions. But even technology can't solve all problems, as a friend of mine reports.

Seems his son was up in the hinterlands of Wisconsin, following the directions of his GPS, when it suddenly demanded that he make a left turn onto a road marked with a very clear "DO NOT ENTER" sign. He wanted to know whether he should obey the GPS or the sign. Now, at this point I could pause for a dissertation on how the kid's confusion over which to obey is a symptom of how we're becoming Tools of our Toys, but for now I'll put that tirade on hold. I want instead to consider just where the kid was when he got mixed up. Seems he was approaching a diamond-style interchange between the state highway he was on and a limited-access divided highway. Something like the one at right:

He's coming in from the west (which is the left side of the picture) and wants to end up going north on the four-lane. But when the GPS is demanding (quite insistently, or so he says) that he turn left at the first ramp--in other words, it's telling him to go north on the southbound off-ramp, into the southbound lane of the highway.

Which got me to thinking: why would the GPS want to send him down the wrong ramp into the wrong lane in the wrong direction? Is it just stupid? Is it in fact telling him to take the northbound on-ramp that's the other side of the bridge? (To this last, I have the answer: no; the GPS wants him to go north on the southbound ramp. We know this because once he passed the ramp, it started re-plotting his route.) Could it be that the GPS was programmed in England, where people drive on the left side of the road? Or, for that matter, China, where people also drive on the left side, and where most of the consumer electronics in the world are currently being made?

Or, perhaps, reality is even stranger. When the kid got to the other side of the bridge, the GPS again started telling him to turn left, this time onto the northbound on-ramp. This leads to the rather frightening speculation that the GPS really has no concept of which way traffic goes on a road. Which would make sense--the software's really just seeing lines connecting dots, and plotting a minimum-distance path between them. Which is why, on occasion, GPS units tell people to turn onto the wrong line--for instance a railroad track, as in this New York Times story. Or, as in this story from Germany, into a portable toilet. Who knows; maybe the "P" in GPS stands for something other than "positioning"?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Blast from the Past!

The Buell Motorcycle Company celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary this summer, and as part of the celebration their house organ, Fuell, printed a special retrospective issue with a silver cover and lots of pictures and such from the company's history. Including, on the third page, this picture from the 1987 motorcycle show in Rosemont, Illinois. Erik Buell, founder, head designer, president, chief cook and bottle-washer, is on the left, in that nifty (but vaguely out-of-place at a motorcycle show) business suit, explaining the virtues of his new RR1000 motorcycle. (For those who don't know, the RR1000 was a serious sporty-bike, propelled by the short-lived but powerful XR1000 Harley engine. It's one of the slipperiest motorcycles ever released to the public, and just a few years ago one of these twenty-year-old machines, with a newer engine, set a Land Speed Record at Bonneville.)

But who's that guy next to him, the furball in the Sturgis shirt, clutching a poster and a four-dollar cup of Budweiser? Yep, it's me. I'd bought my first Harley about four years earlier, and was by now up to four of them (two Sportsters, both of which I still had, and two FXRT Sport Glides, one of which I'd gotten through the peculiar combination of near-terminal poison ivy and Lamaze classes, but that's another story), and what drew me to chat with Erik was more his involvement in the project that first developed the FXRT. We talked a bit about the Sport Glide, particularly the rather lousy saddlebag latches that were on the first couple years of the bike. Erik gamely tried to redirect the conversation to his new bike, and eventually I was willing to listen to that, too.

As much as I liked the bike, I wasn't willing to buy one. It wasn't the $16,000 price tag as much as it was the dead-end motor (the XR1000 engine was a one-shot project at HD; the future was in the new 1100cc all-aluminum Evolution motor) and the fact that the bike lacked a lot of features I'd need to go touring, such as a passenger seat and luggage. Of course it lacked these things; it was, after all, more of a street-legal road racer, a bike optimized for going around corners very fast. Which was true... but when you live outside Chicago, going around corners fast means you either set up your bike for touring or buy a trailer, because the nearest place with roads even remotely worthy of this bike is more than a hundred miles away. And I don't like trailers. So, as I recall, before I finally shook his hand and headed off for another overpriced beer, I told him "give it the new motor, a passenger seat and some luggage, and I'll buy one."

Eight years later, he took me up on that offer by bringing out the S2T Thunderbolt... which I also didn't buy (though I sort of wish I had, preferably in that bright metallic purple they called "Parkway Blue"). Instead, almost exactly nine years after the Rosemont motorcycle show where I first met Erik, I bought a '96 S1 Lightning... a bike which had no passenger seat (heck, even the rider seat was best described as a "one-cheek wonder") and no luggage. And I took it touring. But that's another story, too.