Archive for August, 2008

Jason Ricci

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Friday Night I went down to see Jason Ricci play. He is a punk rocker who plays harmonica and does some blues. He is a unique player that does stuff nobody else can do. He is currently at the cutting edge of harmonica using techniques that are impossible to most of us. Here is a very short clip from the end of one of his songs. I can tell you that the notes he is playing don’t exist on my harps. It sounds like simple arpeggios, but it if you know harp there are two notes there that can only be played if you have a strangely shaped tongue, and a devious mind.

Don&#39t Look Back in Awe

Friday, August 29th, 2008

Here’s a blog entry saying that old Science Fiction is no longer relevant to readers.

That sucks.

Young people, especially, have the feeling that their minds, emotions and lives are different, somehow, from the lives of those who came before them. The unfortunate truth is that they are exactly the same as their parents, exactly the same as their grandparents and exactly the same as the peasant working the fields in medieval Europe that they are descended. They may have had a few different experiences growing up, but their minds and souls are of the same human stuff as Homo Sapiens has been for about 40,000 years or even longer.

Each generation (I came of age in the summer of love) thinks that they are different, when we are just the same old genes being recycled. If it is nature or nurture, the nature doesn’t change and the nurture hardly changes.

People haven’t changed. Values haven’t changed. Society has only changed a little. Our inner lives are roughly the same as our ancestors. Our external lives are more involved with technology and changes in media. Our attitudes and opinions, as survey after survey prove, are firmly rooted in the 19th century. In fact fewer and fewer of us get to college or are exposed to any enlightenment. Let’s face it, most of us live in a country of trailer park ignorance, that would be easily understood by anyone from the last few thousand years.

There is nothing about the year 2008 that invalidates something written in 1948.

As far as SF changing since the golden age, I think that the change has generally been for the worse. This blogger cites Asimov’s Nightfall as being a wasted effort. “By all criteria, ‘Nightfall’ fails as a good short story” he says. By all criteria, he fails as a reader and critic.

What really bothers me is that this blogger lists The Alexandria Quartet in his profile as being one of his favorite novels. Durrell wrote the quartet in the late 1950s (I reread it recently and blogged about it – good stuff). This was about the same time that Asimov wrote Nightfall. You could be silly and make the claim that literature has changed and the no one reads Durrell any more. That Durrell is dated and doesn’t belong in our cyberpunk world.

My own feeling about the state of SF is that it will never be as good as it once was. SF has come and gone. Now comic books and bad movies are all that’s left of it. I try to read SF in the zines and new novels and it always feels flat and uninspired. They are just technical exercises in speculation. The sense of wonder has vanished.

The sense of wonder – that’s the real essence of Speculative Fiction. I think this is what is missing from modern SF. You have to get that thrill in the small of your back. You have to laugh and sigh and shed a tear, but always feel amazed.

The names of the Golden Age magazines say it all:
Amazing, Astounding, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, Fantastic Story, Weird Tales

George O. Smith – Hellflower

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

hellflower The only things that I’ve read by George O. Smith were published in Astounding Science Fiction in the late 1940s and early 50s. John W. Campbell, jr. published many of Smith’s stories. As I remember, they were engineering stories and I especially liked the Venus Equilateral ones about engineering and human problems exploiting the planet Venus.

Smith stopped publishing in Astounding when he ran off with Campbell’s first wife. (A nice juicy bit of SF gossip).

Hellflower (1953) is a good space yarn with rockets and aliens and a bustling solar system where a ship could make it to Pluto in a few weeks. The plot surrounds the illegal smuggling of a narcotic flower that is destroying the stability of human society. This, of course, is an alien plot to take over Earth.

The story starts out with an old tried but true plot device. A man ruined by a mistake in his past is offered a chance to redeem himself by working on the side of truth, justice and the American way. The love interest is a remarkably complex but believable drug addicted woman who hates the protagonist. I have known a few drug addicts and the painting of the character is right on the money. In the 1950s, as some might remember and others might know, American society was remarkably naive about drug fiends and how they behaved. Smith must have been close to someone addicted to hard drugs or else known a very bad alcoholic.

The Hellflower drug is all that the drug ecstasy is supposed to be and isn’t. It imbues the user with a sense of sensual well-being and a loss of inhibitions. It also seems to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain or makes them more receptive. Overuse leads to the inability to feel anything except intense emotions and users become addicted to hatred. This is quite complex for an early Science Fiction novel, which is why I think Smith may have had some experience with addiction. The protagonist only drinks non-alcoholic beverages.

The plot carries the protagonist around the solar system and eventually out of it. He moves in and out of danger and escapes by good luck or quick wits. It is a page turner of a book. The characters are a little out of date (they dress for dinner and the women wear party dresses). The technology is never really gone into in detail. Efficient atomic rocket drives and later FTL travel are assumed, but not explained. The protagonist does some course calculations by looking up angles in an ephemeris and uses a slide rule to do the math. This doesn’t bother me that much. It seems to me that it was not too long ago that I used a slide rule to solve engineering problems.

Interestingly enough, the aliens aren’t any worse than humans. They have read earth history and realized that humans can never deal with aliens on an equal basis. Humans are not to be trusted and eventually, because of their greater numbers they would overwhelm the aliens and exploit their world and reduce the aliens to poverty. (Do Native American’s come to mind?) The aliens decide to do this to earth before it was done to them. This makes sense.

George O. Smith is mostly forgotten today. He wrote in the grand old Golden Age style (think Heinlein). Hellflower is only around 60k words and I finished most of it in just two bus rides. It is fast paced adventure. It is the kind of story I like to read and the kind of story that I would like to write. I am on the lookout now for more George O. Smith books.

Ward and Amy in OZ

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

I just received a postcard from Australia. My little brother and his wife are on vacation down in Australia. He says it is amazingly beautiful, but chilly. It’s not yet spring there. I expect to hear some good stories when he gets back, and maybe a nice archive of pictures.

Gordon R. Dickson – The Earth Lords

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

earthlords When I think of Dickson, I think of the Dorsai books that I read a long time ago. These were military SF and probably Dickson, more than anyone else, has defined Military Science Fiction. The war in Vietnam soured me on militarism, so I only read a few of them, but I remember that the Dorsai books were very good.

The Earth Lords (1989) is one of the books I picked up a couple of weeks ago at a garage sale. It is a longish book, about 200K, and suffers a little from what I was talking to J. Erwine about on his blog. There is a general feeling that the prose is padded to make it a longer book. As one of J’s commenters was saying, it could have been edited down by 80%.

The characters are the usual suspects. I am going to write a paper some day on the curse of the reasonable protagonist. The best books have flawed characters. Science Fiction does not. Most SF books suffer from heroic characters who have all the fine characteristics that that author obviously sees in himself, or wants to.

The plot initially appears to be a pretense to paint the image that appears on the cover. It is about a race of super-human little people – the Earth Lords – that live underground and use regular people as "Steeds". They ride around on the backs of humans.

Once the key image is out of the way, the plot becomes the protagonist’s attempt to thwart the Earth Lord’s plan to ruin the earth with a machine that move the tectonic plates and create volcanoes and earthquakes. Yes, it’s a dumb premise. Since it takes place in the 19th century in Canada there are holes in the logic that you could drive a large horse through.

The good things about The Earth Lords is good prose. It reads well and the images are all well painted, although it uses a few too many words. It is hampered by the wooden characters and a love interest that seems illogical and one sided. The plot is not all that believable. A decent read, but not a book I’ll be reading again soon.

Next up is Hellflower by George O. Smith from 1953 – my kind of SF. It’s short, 60-70k so I might have it finished by Friday.

Luck: A User’s Manual

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Here’s a site that friend wants me to critique. I’ve read through it a few times and I think I understand the words, but I there is something basic that I don’t get.

Please check it out and tell me what you think of it. Leave comments here, even if you have nothing beyond a vague feeling.

I am missing the point somehow. How can we focus the site onto what is important? How can we render this into one simple sentence that makes people really want to read more? I know a bunch of writers read this blog and in writing terms we need to tighten the view. We need to get the reader to see through the eyes of the webmaster. What needs to be done?

I am not fond of the template used. I hope that whenever you see orange graphics or text on a web page that you think “cheap websites R Us dot com”. That is not what is wrong, however. It could still be a good site if we can fix the content.

Luck: A User’s Manual


Monday, August 25th, 2008

I found this on my Craigslist Telecommute search engine thingy (see below).

I Can Has Cheezburger? Looks for PHP Genius (Telecommute)

We are in the process of integrating our fast-growing WordPress blogs with our super-duper back-end (written in .NET) You will make the intarwebs a better tube for millions as we develop some amazing tools and features (we’re more than just a blog under this fur!). We offer flexible hours, a fun work environment, health benefits and freedom from the tyranny of spelllcheck. (Plus free cat pictures!)

The One and Only Technical Requirement: A deep, expert understanding of developing, deploying and managing customer-facing web sites using PHP on LAMP setups.

I can do this, but probably not while working full time on my present job. It’s nice to think that when I retire to the ocean front property and start writing my novel that I can pick up extra cash from time to time.

I Can Has Cheezburger? Looks for PHP Genius

Happy birthday Ray Bradbury

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Ray turned 88. I had heard that he was bedridden, but it seems he’s well enough to get out a bit and hang at bookstores for signings.

I am going to write him a letter and tell him how much of an influence he was on my life. Every time I do something like this the recipient dies before the letter gets there, so I am a little nervous. Using snail mail is also not so easy anymore. Who has envelopes and first class stamps, nowadays?

I have Dandelion Wine on my iPod and listen to it a little at a time – sipping it slowly so that I can enjoy the flavor.

Ray Bradbury C/O
HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
10 East 53rd Street
New York, New York 10022

Serendipitous Algorithmic Writing

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

This is an interesting website that generates things like French Names, Plot twists and Fantasy Novel Titles. It uses a vocabulary database and arranges elements randomly. The results are usually funny, but sometimes useful. I like the silly Fantasy novel titles. They are right on the money.

Serendipity: “Ever feel like most fantasy authors generated their book titles at random? Now you can, too.”

Erica’s Lasik Surgery

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

I took the day off Thursday to drive Erica down to the eye doctor. She finally, after years of struggling with her vision, had laser surgery on her eyes. She had a strange case because of a very bad astigmatism in her left eye and she was far sighted. The technology finally caught up with her eyes and she now has 20/20 vision.

She has to go back for the follow through, but after 2 days, she is generally pleased with it. You have to decide whether you want your vision to be good for far vision or close up. Erica’s middle vision is greatly improved. She can see the computer screen without glasses for the first time in many years. She was happy to discover that her watch has a second hand. She can drive without glasses.

Her close up vision is still a little out of focus, but that may improve as her eyes heal. She wanted to be able to read books with fine print without glasses, but she may not be able to do this. Since the lens has lost its elasticity, you have to decide on the fixed-focus that will suit you. They make one eye able to see close and the other to see far so your vision blends into a useful compromise.

This is not something that you do at a walk-in clinic for $500. The best doctors charge more than $2,000 per eye. Erica looked for a long time before she settled on a doctor. One of the good things about living in the Greater New York area is that she had her choice of good doctors.

Buying Books by the Pound

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

Some of the 57 booksI bought 57 books on eBay – about 14 pounds. (picture is of a random sample) They arrived today. These are great books, most from the 1960s and 70s. Many are unknown or little known authors. I don’t think that I’ve read about three quarters of them. This is going to last me until around Thanksgiving.

As I finish these, I’m going to put them up for sale. I am well on the way of writing a world class storefront system in PHP (no database required). My system is unique in that it is for small stores with a small inventory that don’t want to have a complex database but still want a full featured system. I also want to to be easy enough to use that it will make selling one-of-a-kind items easy. I want to support only PayPal (and maybe Google Checkout) because I believe that accepting credit cards directly is too expensive for the average small store.

I was searching around for more books, and I found a web site that sells science fiction books by the pound (I am keeping its URL secret). An average paperback weighs about 4 ounces so that’s 4 books to the pound (including packing material.) At $2 a pound, that’s right in my price range. You can make an offer for less, so I will see it they go for $1 a pound for 50 pounds (200 books). The good news is that these are new books, and I probably have not read any of them. The bad news is that they include those ubiquitous D&D, TV show (trek, Dr. who, Buffy et al), Vampire, Zombie, and 6 part series books in the count and you don’t get to choose.

You can expect many more badly written book reviews in the next few months.

Guitar Gear

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

My harmonica websites makes money. Musical Gear in general makes money. I find that the parts of my sites that deal with Guitars make more money than the harp sections.

With this in mind, I’ve turned my automated web pages into a gear site for guitar players called

I am afraid that the design is one of those mass produced in Russia templates, but the whole idea is cheesey enough anyway so I don’t think anyone will criticize it.

Here are the links I’ve made so far:

Fender Stratocaster Fender Twin Amplifier Fender Telecaster Fender Super Amplifier Gibson Les Paul Carvin Amplifier Dumble Amplifier Peavey Amplifier Guitar Effects Guitar Tab Guitar Show

Sterling E. Lanier – The Unforsaken Hiero

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008


Sterling E. Lanier is a Good writer, but did not write all that many books, and the ones he wrote seem to be out of print. I guess that his day job took up much of his time. He produced two of these Hiero books and several other SF titles. I picked up this at the same garage sale where I bought the Andre Norton book (reviewed last week).

In the History of Science Fiction he will be remember as being the person at Chilton Books who agreed to publish Frank Herbert’s Dune. Chilton, as everyone knows who ever worked on a car, published technical automotive books. I have had a Chilton Guide for every car I’ve owned going back to my 1958 Volkswagen convertible bug (I wonder where it is now?). Lanier bought the most popular book ever offered by Chilton’s, but since sales started out slowly, he lost his job over the decision.

The remarkable thing about The Unforsaken Hiero and it’s predecessor, Hiero’s Journey, is the cryptozoology aspects of the books. He has lots of fun describing a post-apocalyptic world where mutations caused by a nuclear event or by human tinkering produce many strange creatures.

The best parts of The Unforsaken Hiero are the full characters, very evil villains, and wonderfully bizarre creatures in a world 5,000 years in the future. The writing is clear and musical and the descriptions are very rich.

The down side of The Unforsaken Hiero is that the plot literally wanders all over the place, giving us plenty of opportunities to discover strange life, but not really moving forward very fast. I was disappointed to discover about 50 pages through that I had read this more than 20 years ago. As I remember, the first book was better, and I looked for a non-existent third book in the series for a while. I have not quite finished it (about 30 pages to go), but my recollection is that Lanier leaves the plot open for the next book. Lanier must have worked on another Hiero book. If I ever meet any of his family, I will surely ask if there is a chance that I could read anything he has written on it.

Lanier’s Hiero books are imaginative and well written. If you see one, snatch it up.

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Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of this blog. I’ve made 1270 entries and I’ve gone for as long as six months without an entry. I’ve had an email address since around 1990 and made my first web page in 1994. I wrote my first program in 1969 and I wrote my first program for pay in 1977. I’ve been doing this for much too long.