Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Just like a certain tale by "Chip" Delany.

Addendum (09/28/15): An Atlas Obscura article on the subject. A online journal and database of driftglass beaches (almost makes me wish for the times when it was just something I read about in a certain tale by "Chip" Delany and it was still easy to find!)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Meccano Dancing (Here We Go!). With Apologies to XTC.

I had some Erector Set materials when I was a kid (that being the US version of Meccano). It's a shame they went the way of "dumbing down" some years ago and have now pretty much vanished. Lego seems to do well (not sure about the current state of Lego's Mindstorms line of more advanced—and more expensive—robotic sets), but Meccano (Erector) was definitely in an interesting class of it's own. Here's Sir Arthur C. Clarke talking about Meccano (he also commented once that he had become wealthy enough to finally buy every set he ever wanted to have!):
In an article by Lord Taylor published in the Christmas 1978 edition of the British Medical Journal, the author describes a medical complaint known as the "Presenile Meccano Syndrome." The "victims" of this obsession apparently fall into the affluent middle-age category, people who are able to buy huge Meccano outfits and indulge themselves after possibly many years of not being able to afford to do this.

In two out of three cases, the gentlemen concerned are content to gaze at their outfits through the cellophane wrappings, while the third, who has probably never constructed a Meccano model in his life, delights in dismantling the models of others and very carefully replacing the parts in the appropriate compartments of the carton.

Well, I have some good news for the eminent medic. There's a complete cure for the Meccano Syndrome: it's called a Personal Computer...Unfortunately, the cure is much deadlier than the disease.

(Arthur C. Clarke, Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!)

(2015 Update: The fascination continues.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Galactic Patrol

In the late 1960's, I traveled between the galaxies.

In reality, I was standing in front of the wire-frame book rack at Packard's Market in Hackensack, New Jersey. My parents would bring us there for the weekly shopping trip, dump us in front of the books and we would happily browse while they shopped (can you imagine anybody doing that these days?).

Ah yes, the days before bookstores. Yes, there were bookstores in the world, children. Just not in Teaneck, New Jersey, not then. There was the library (with a shelf of science fiction for "juveniles" about four foot long) that I worked through. Alan E. Nourse (Rocket to Limbo, followed by books such as Raiders from the Rings and Scavengers in Space) was my first science fiction novel. Andre Norton (Star Born, the Forerunner books, Zero StoneUncharted Stars) soon followed, and then Arthur C. Clarke (Islands in the Sky) and other books from John C. Winston Books...

But those wire racks. Those took me between the galaxies.

You see around that time Pyramid Books reissued E.E. "Doc" Smith's classic Skylark books and Lensman books. I'm not sure what it was that caught my eye. Was it the name? (Did "E.E." have the same mysterious connotations as A.E. in A.E. van Vogt and C.L. as in C.L. Moore?) Was it the fact that it was a series (if you like the first, there's more to come!)? Was it the artwork by (as I learned later) Jack Gaughan?

The covers. Definitely the covers. Cool bug-like spaceships. They didn't look like the Mercury and Gemini capsules that I built models of. They looked like, well, spaceships! Far future craft, plying their way between the stars.

Standing there as the crowds swirled around us, I started with the first book in the series, Triplanetary. And was hooked. During subsequent visits (I was a fast reader), I went through the rest of the series: First LensmanGalactic PatrolGrey LensmanSecond Stage LensmanChildren of the Lens and Masters of the Vortex.

We didn't start small. Oh, no. We start with the collision of two galaxies, the creation of many worlds, the rise of two competing philosophies, war in space and on the Earth, the fall of Atlantis, the fall of Rome, World War II, World War ??? and then war between planets.

And that was just the start of the series!

The rise of the Galactic Patrol, the coming of Kimball Kinnison, space pirates, the layers of the onion that was the crime organization of Boskone, weird aliens that were allies...ships that got bigger and bigger, weapons that got bigger and bigger. Heck, skip ships, start tossing planets around! Single worlds! Fleets of worlds! Negaspheres! Vortexes! Mind power! More!

Corny? Yes. Characters? No. Nevertheless, hook, line and sinker. And I revisit them every couple of years.

The Lensman series led to SkylarkSkylark led to John W. "Astounding Stories" Campbell, Jr. Then there was Edmond "World Wrecker" Hamilton, Leigh "Planet Stories" Brackett, Jack "Space Legion" Williamson and all the other proponents of the first great age of space opera.

Space Opera, yep, that is my secret vice.

These things come in waves. Space opera, as it was later termed, helped to build science fiction and bring about the "golden age" (eleven). It helped to spawn films like Forbidden Planet and television series like Star Trek. Then it became uncool and we had the New Wave and the like and then the New Space Opera and it was cool again and then fell out of favor and came back as the New New Space Opera.

It lives, it breathes, it grows. Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, Iain M. Banks, Charles Stross, Ken MacLeod, John Ringo, David Weber, Travis S. "Doc" Taylor (finally, another "Doc"!), Howard Tayler and many more share in my "secret vice" now.

When does a secret vice become not so much a vice? Hmmm...time to crack open Galactic Patrol. Or maybe The Legion of Space. Or The Black Star Passes. Or...

(This was my contribution to the latest edition of SF Signal's Mind Meld feature...link lost, alas...)

Addendum: Another 15 picoseconds of fame.

Bonus Addendum: Packard's Market!

Monday, January 31, 2011

For Saffron. 1994 (best guess) to 2011. Her journey is at the end.

We lost our first dog, Java (a rescue from a garbage dumpster), early in 1995, to cancer. We made the vow not to get another dog "for a while" but pretty soon decided we could not stand the empty house. A few weeks later saw us at the local big box pet store during a pet adoption day. We saw Saffron (then named with another moniker) in a crate. I hesitated, started to pass, but then she reached out with a paw. It nearly broke my heart to see her in there.

We plunked the money down.

She was a handful in our condo. Definitely the alpha dog, figuring that she ran our pack. We could not figure her breed, the papers said "pit pull", but at that point any dog that was a bit fuzzy was tagged with that. She was vastly underweight, ribs showing through, highly energetic, high maintenance, loved destroying books and gloves and watches, and even several square feet of wall-to-wall carpeting (when that happened, she nearly went back).

Age was undeteremined, we figured a year. Eventually, when we identified her breed (Rhodesian Ridgeback, now better known but practically a rarity then), we figured out why she had been abandoned: Rhodesian Ridgebacks can be born with a ridge that stands up or (in her case) a ridge that only stands up when the dog is excited. Less-than-ethical breeders destroyed puppies at that time that did not show a ridge. So Saffron was either abandoned on purpose to die or escaped being killed.

After a few months with her, we were spurred into trying to buy a house. We wanted to expand and she needed a yard.

After we bought the house, we needed to put up a fence. A six-foot-high fence, mind you. Why six foot? Because we found she could jump over a five foot fence.

After we had the fence, we needed to get a second dog. Why a second dog? Because we needed to give her a playmate. She was high-maintenance, high-energy. We got Cosmo, about whom I have written here.

Cosmo was with us for many years, and while he slowed down, and Saffron slowed down, they were inseparable. They were good buddies to the end, when Cosmo suffered a series of strokes, and as with Java, we had to perform the ultimate duty. Saffron was then alone.

After some time, we came across Mocha, a rescued Doberman/Labrador mix. Mocha...well, we had Java, a Doberman/Beagle (?) mix (another rescue, seeing a pattern here with where we get our dogs?) about whom I have written here. Mocha was not as high-energy or high-maintenance as Saffron was, was a bit energetic to the point where Saffron was, but was soon a good companion to Saffron. She was, for one thing, very protective of Saffron and careful around her: if Saffron fell and we were out of the house, Mocha would bark at us when we came home.

Unfortunately, things soon started going bad for Saffron. There were at least three occasions over the past two years where we thought "this is it". One time when I thought she was having a seizure (turned out to be something else). One time when she exhibited signs of internal bleeding. And then there were the legs.

The legs are pretty much what did it. She developed arthritis in the back legs and then nerve problems in the spinal column. Toss in the balance issues ("crazy eyes", what I thought was the seizure), a declining appetite, medicines that seemed to do less and less, the impact of the cold, the severe impact of the snow and ice...she got weaker and weaker, was unable to hardly walk inside, let alone outside, had to be carried out to do her "thing".

And, finally, Monday morning, told me what had to be done.

It is a hard thing. But it is something that you, as a pet owner, must do. If you are a good owner, you not only take responsibility for the care of a dog, the feeding of a dog, the training of a dog, but the health and ultimate fate of the dog. You love the dog, but there comes a time when you must put aside the desire to keep the dog going, in order to shield your feelings and fear of loss to what is best for the dog.

Saffron could not "speak", but I knew what she was "saying".

I told my wife that I had made an appointment. When my daughter came home, I tried to explain to her what had to be done: I was taking Saffron to the vet's, but there was a good chance that they would not be able to do anything for her and she might not be returning with me. They said goodbye, I carried Saffron into the car, drove to the vet's, and then carried into the vet's where I waited for the doctor. We discussed her health, he examined her, gave me an honest assessment of what was going on (one reason I have stuck with the firm for all this time).

And then we did what was necessary.

She was strong-willed enough that her heart kept beating after the vet thought she should have passed due to the application of the euthanizing medication, but not strong enough to keep on going through what was obviously a lot of pain. While eventually the years of joy will outweigh the pain of this moment, sometimes the cost of what you pay to have a pet seems overwhelming.

Goodbye, my friend. I miss you. I hate this. But I had to do it.

Am not going to argue whether a machine can "really" be alive, "really" be self-aware. Is a virus self-aware? Nyet! How about oyster? I doubt it. A cat? Almost certainly. A human? Don't know about you tovarishch, but I am. Somewhere along evolutionary chain from macromolecule to human brain self-awareness crept in. Psychologists assert it happens automatically whenever a brain acquires certain very high number of associational paths. Can't see it matters whether paths are protein or platinum.

("Soul?" Does dog have a soul? How about cockroach?)
 (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Part 1, That Dinkum Thinkum, Chapter 1)

"Do dogs have souls? Maybe not in the sense we reserve for ourselves, but in other sense: memory. That's where they go, and it's good enough for them...I thought of some other dogs I've known, and how it's necessary to recollect them from time to time, and thank them for the honor of holding their ghosts until you relinquish your own." (James Lileks)

"I know of no reason why I should not look for the animals to rise again, in the same sense in which I hope myself to rise again—which is, to reappear, clothed with another and better form of life than before. If the Father will raise His children, why should He not also raise those whom He has taught His little ones to love?

"Love is the one bond of the universe, the heart of God, the life of His children: if animals can be loved, they are lovable; if they can love, they are yet more plainly lovable: love is eternal; how then should its object perish? Must the love live on forever without its object? or, worse still, must the love die with its object, and be eternal no more than it?

"Is not our love to the animals a precious variety of love? And if God gave the creatures to us, that a new phase of love might be born in us toward another kind of life from the same fountain, why should the new life be more perishing than the new love?

"Can you imagine that, if, hereafter, one of God's little ones were to ask Him to give again one of the earth's old loves—kitten, or pony, or squirrel, or dog, which He had taken from him, the Father would say no? If the thing was so good that God made it for and gave it to the child at first who never asked for it, why should He not give it again to the child who prays for it because the Father had made him love it? What a child may ask for, the Father will keep ready."
 (George MacDonald)