Monthly Archives: August 2019

620. Wikipedia

I love the Internet. I had access to it for a decade or so at work, but rarely used it. When I retired and returned to full time writing, that all changed.

I don’t do Facebook or Twitter or games or most of that kind of thing, but I couldn’t live without e-mail. It saves me a lot on paper and ink, and even more in time. It used to take a week to get a paper manuscript ready to send by USPS, fifteen dollars at the window, a week for it to get to a publisher, and a year before they replied. Now I can send an e-mail manuscript in a few minutes, it arrives in an hour, and then I only have to wait a year for them to reply. Much better.

For this blog, I do a lot of research. That usually doesn’t including trying to find out things I don’t know about. It typically means finding out details I’ve forgotten about things I already know about.

For example, I would never do a review of Eragon because I haven’t read it, and I wouldn’t repeat someone else’s opinion of something I hadn’t read. I have read A Wizard of Earthsea, and I speak of it often, but it has been years and I might need to find out some things I don’t remember. Perhaps the name of the wizard who was Sparrowhawk’s friend (I actually do remember; it was Vetch), or perhaps the year it was published. I might need to find out how to spell some weird made-up name — or some weird name that isn’t made up. That is the thing I find the internet most helpful for, and when I run a search, the Wikipedia response is usually the most useful.

I have several other go-to spots on the internet, but I couldn’t live without Wikipedia.

Every once in a while, Wikipedia asks for a donation, and I always give them something. They sent me a nice letter a few days ago and I asked for permission to quote part of it. I forgot to ask if I could borrow their logo as an eye-catcher, but I think they’ll forgive me.

The essential story of Wikipedia is the story of individuals giving a little to keep the doors of discovery open.

You probably donated because Wikipedia is useful to you. That’s one of the main reasons people tell me when I ask them why they support Wikipedia. But what may surprise you is that one of the top reasons people don’t give is because they can’t afford to.

At the Wikimedia Foundation, we believe that no one should have to pay to learn. We believe knowledge should always be free. We will never charge anyone to use Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is yours: yours to read, yours to edit, yours in which to get lost. We’re not the destination, we’re the beginning.

No one should have to pay to learn. Knowledge should always be free. Now that’s a notion I can get behind.

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619. The Crash Heard Round the World

Two days ago on the news, a Tesla driver was caught on camera asleep at the wheel on a freeway. We all got to see him snooze, then eventually got to see him jerk awake. Chit-chat ensued. One talking head said, “Someday sleeping at the wheel will probably be legal and safe.” Another replied, “Not in my car!”

When I was ten years old, everybody knew that men would never walk on the moon. In the subsequent decades, the public’s default position on what science plans to do has switched from can’t to can. The public isn’t any smarter; they’ve just changed their prejudices.

Driverless cars have been around for a long time in science fiction. Here is page 2, paragraph 1 of Methuselah’s Children by Heinlein, first published in 1941.

Mary had no intention of letting anyone know where she was going. Outside her friend’s apartment she dropped down a bounce tube to the basement, claimed her car from the robopark, guided it up the ramp and set the controls for North Shore. The car waited for a break in the traffic, then dived into the high-speed stream and hurried north. Mary settled back for a nap.

Good fun in ’41, but no one would have expected to see it happen this soon. Even science fiction aficionados might have said 2119, or maybe 2219, yet here we are, on the brink.

In 1941, the world was very different. Heinlein might imagine driverless cars, but he never imagined something else that is now part of our world — computer hacking.

Hang on, folks, I’m going to make a prediction.

At a near future date every car on the highway will be driverless. The old curmudgeons like me who wouldn’t even trust cruise control will all be dead, mostly from auto crashes with drivers who did trust cruise control. The text-and-drive crew will have won the battle of the public consciousness. Science will have proved that humans are inferior to computers in driving, and science will be right because it will be comparing computers to the text-while-driving generation. Human drivers will be outlawed as unsafe — which they will be.

Driverless cars will talk to each other and to central control, adding another layer of safety to the whole enterprise. Central control will be heavily protected against hacking, for obvious reasons. Science will prove that central control is impenetrable.

Science always proves something like that, just before the cataclysm. See Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

All that was just set-up for the prediction.  Here is the prediction.

Sometime in August of 2035, a kid named Morrisey, who isn’t even born today, will hack the un-hackable central control. No one will notice. He will place a delayed command, and head for a hill overlooking an LA freeway.

On August 26th, 2035, at peak rush hour, central control will send out an order and every automobile in America will speed to 100 mph, then simultaneously make a ninety degree left turn.

Registering 4.6 on the Richter scale, it will be the Crash Heard Round the World.

St. Peter will have to put on extra staff.

Coulter and the Gray Man 3

Coulter approached the conductor, once the train was in motion again, and said, “I don’t understand.”

“What?”

“Anything.”

The conductor looked annoyed. He said, “What do you want from me.”

“I want to know why I’m here.”

“You had a need. We only go where someone has a great need. That’s all I can tell you. I let people on, I let them off, and I warn them of the future. That’s my whole job. I’m not here to explain.

The conductor went on, “You could tell me why you are here. What was your need, that was so great?”

“Need? I was stark naked, without a weapon, and I was being chased by about a thousand Blackfeet who wanted my scalp. All of a sudden, there was a station and a steam train with a single coach. Of course I didn’t know that was what it was. I had never seen one before. But you threw open the door and I jumped in about two steps in front of those braves. Don’t you remember?”

“Somewhat.” Then, for the first time, the conductor smiled a little. “I have opened that door for more people than you could count, but you were running faster than anyone I ever saw.”

Coulter looked around the coach. It was smaller now, older, ill-painted and groaning over the uneven rails. The gray man was on board again, drinking with some of the other passengers. HIs hand held a watch that had, moments before, resided in the pocket of his companion’s waistcoat. The gray man smiled and the watch disappeared. His companion never noticed.

“Gray man,” Coulter shouted, “riders get on and riders get off. I never see them again. But you come and go. Why?”

“This train is the best place there is,” the gray man replied. “I do sometimes get off, but I always come back. You could learn from me.”

Coulter turned back to ask, “What happens to the others, when they leave the train.”

The conductor shook his head. “I don’t know. It isn’t my business to know. They are mine as long as they stay, but when they leave, they go out of my protection, and out of my knowledge.”

“And if I leave?”

“You will know how your story ends. I will not.”

“And If I don’t leave?”

“Then your story will never be complete.”

Now the coach was swaying badly on the unballasted rails. The diamond stacked 4-4-0 American up front was boiling black smoke and a lonesome whistle echoed across the prairie. There was a station ahead, just a dismounted boxcar on crossed ties with a water tank and a flag to stop the train. Crouched in the grass were several hundred Blackfeet, mostly naked, and well armed.

“They’re still there,” Coulter said, “and they’re still pissed.”

“It is your choice.”

Coulter drew a deep breath, and then he whooped. All the other passengers jerked in surprise. He said, “Go to the windows, folks. This is going to be a show.”

He grinned at the conductor and shouted, “Open the door, Son, and give me room to run.”

The gray man just shook his head, and dealt the cards again.

finis

Coulter and the Gray Man 2

The gray man wandered about the coach, talking to the other passengers. He settled in near two heavy men, passed them a bottle, and set out a deck of cards. The man in buckskin, Coulter, watched for a few minutes, then settled himself in to sleep.

The gray man won the first hand.

Later, the gray man got off at a tiny village which lay beneath the smoke of recent pogroms. Eighteen people got on the train. The gray man was the only one to get off.

The conductor said, “Where?” He didn’t need to ask why.

The leader was bearded and old, stick thin, and stooped. He said, “Anywhere.”

The conductor didn’t bother to tell them that they would not like where they were going. They were Jews. They already knew what life held in store for them.

#            #            #

In a green, soft land, by a lovely bay where seabirds swirled, they loaded men and women with pinched and hungry Irish faces.

#            #            #

In a shattered town in Czechoslovakia, they loaded displaced Germans, who were running from mobs that were celebrating the end of the war by killing the relatives of their oppressors.

#            #            #

In Tasmania, they loaded Aborigines who had been hunted like wallabies.

#            #            #

When Coulter awoke next, the gray man was back. He had come aboard during the night. Coulter stood by the window, watching the striped horses and the massive gray, long nosed — whatever they were — and the tall, powerful, naked black men with long bladed spears who were hunting them.

“Damnedest Injuns I ever saw.”

The gray man chuckled.

“Damnedest buffalo, too.”

“Come on, Coulter,” the gray man said, “playing the fool won’t do. You may not know what they are, but you know they aren’t be beasts and men of your own home.”

“It’s been a long time since I saw home,” Coulter said. “Where are we now?”

“We are on the railroad of Cecil Rhodes’ dream. Cairo to Capetown on a single railway. Three and a half feet between the rails, with an SAR Garratt 400 up front; one boiler, two bogies, the best articulated there ever was, even though your country never used it.”

“Is it real?”

“Stupid question.”

Coulter was not offended. He watched the herds in their migration for a while, then said, “Whatever it is, it’s making me homesick for buffalo. It looks wild and free.”

The gray man smiled and said, “It is wild. But nothing’s free.”

#            #            #

They stopped in a village at a tiny station which said Jerusalem on its signboard, in a green and pleasant land. The engine was in Midland Railway livery. The coach was upholstered in horsehair and illuminated by gaslight.

A single woman got on board, dressed in long gingham gown, with lace at the cuffs and an infant in her arms. A rake in top hat, wearing a Reynard smirk, descended to on the platform.

The conductor said, “Where and why?”

She said, “London,” and gestured at the child to answer the second question.

The conductor said, “All right, but you won’t like where you are going.”

She smiled at the conductor and said, “I’ll make do.” And he believed that she might. last post tomorrow

618.1 Over There

Things are still busy here, the posts I had planned for this week are not quite ready for prime time, and I have one more short piece of fiction ready for you. It was originally scheduled for next week. I’m going to swap the posts and the fiction, then I’ll bow out of the regular posting business for a week and let you read Coulter and the Gray Man instead. This link will carry you to the first of three posts over in Serial