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.

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

Coulter and the Gray Man 1

Coulter and the Gray Man

The engine purred into the station, all glittering bright and new in the midst of an urban nightmare. Sixteen driving wheels the color of bronze, in four articulated sets. Smooth and slick and painted like a rainbow with a single coach following. Every driver was powered by a flux engine activated by the thorium pile that ran along behind.

Two persons were holding hands in the shadows, sheltered by fallen beams and girders. The wind that swept the platform was harsh and cold, and smelled of decay.

In the side of the pristine coach, a door appeared, with soft light and inviting upholstery beyond. The two rushed forward, darting glances behind them. The conductor stepped aside as they entered.

He looked at them carefully, but he could not tell which was man and which was woman, or even what either had been when they started out. Not that it mattered; there was affectionate touching as they stood together, and a clear mutual regard.

The conductor asked, “Where and why?”

One of the pair spoke up and said, “Anywhere, anytime, as long as it is earlier. Life is not worth living here.”

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

They were jostled aside by a young man who leaped to the platform and looked around. He was skinny, with buzz cut hair and wearing a black Westercon tee-shirt. The skin that showed was heavily tattooed. His face was a study in apprehension and wonder, but he looked ready for anything. He would need to be.

Just before the door closed, another figure, all in gray, slipped aboard and hurriedly took a seat beside a figure in buckskin. There was a whine from the pile and a hiss as the door slid shut. The train began to move, through the darkness and the smoke.

#         #         #

Morning dawned on the taiga. The rails curved between the pines. The Russian P36, 2-4-2 laid a smoke trail across the sky, and tore needles off the trees to send them spiraling down into the snow as it passed. The sky was dark with storm, and flurries of sleet rattled against the windows.

In the dim light of morning, the train broke out into a miles long clearing that flanked an icy river. Ahead was a village, onion domed, brightly painted. The brakes sent a shiver through the coach that caused the gray man to slump against his companion and awaken. The man in buckskin had been staring out the window. He said, “It looks like the Madison.”

“It isn’t.”

“I know that! I’ve seen a thousand rivers since I last saw the Madison. I would hate to leave them behind, but I would love to ride my own rivers again.” He scowled at his seat mate. “How many times have I seen you, and I still don’t know your name.”

“You don’t need to know,” said the gray man.

“I always need to know. That’s what got me into this.”

The train screamed into a station and stood panting impatiently. Three young men, bundled into anonymity, came aboard, and two more left the coach. The conductor said, “Where and why?”

The youngest newcomer said, “Anywhere, anytime, as long as it isn’t Russia. Life is cold and short here.”

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

Hiatus, shortly.

Once again, Serial is going to hibernate — thankfully, I think, after all the wind and cold.

However, this time it won’t be for long. A new piece of short fiction called Coulter and the Gray Man will come to serial in about a week and a half.

============

In case you come onto this at a later date, after this was posted I decided to move Coulter and the Gray Man up a week.

618. Digging Up the Dead

I would love to show the excavations I took part in
but I have no such pictures.
This eyecatcher is an excavation of a
Roman site in London.

Last post I told about doing survey archaeology in Michigan in 1967, ending with the statement that suddenly, when the summer was almost over, everything changed . . .

We got a phone call from the University, and within hours we had packed up, left our base, and were heading half way across Michigan to Bay City.

The Sagnaw River runs through Saginaw, then northward about twenty miles to Bay City where it empties into Lake Huron. It is a major shipping channel which frequently silts up. In Bay City, a project was under way to dredge the shipping channel. An area along the river had been designated to receive what the dredges removed.

The dozers preparing to receive the outflow exposed human remains and everything came to a stop. The police came, but it was clearly not a crime scene. The remains were skeletons in what little remained of wooden coffins, surrounded by grave goods. It was an Indian burial ground.

Yes, Indian. That’s what they were called in 1968 and it was just a designation, like Dutch or French. It wasn’t an insult word. There were plenty of insult words, like redskin, but Indian was just a word. It still is.

Mr. Fletcher, who owned the site, gave permission to Michigan State to do salvage archaeology. We had two weeks to work before the bulldozers were scheduled to go back to work.

When we arrived on the site, we found a flat basin a hundred yards wide and a quarter of a mile long, of mostly pure sand. Those are “close enough” figures from memory. Bulldozers were impatiently poised to return to work.

The site was surrounded by dikes, perhaps twenty feet high. Once we were finished, the dredgers would pump a slurry of sand and water from the river bed into the basin, the water would make its way out through the sand dikes, and whatever remains we could not remove would be lost forever under twenty feet of fill.

There were four archaeology crews out that summer. Three of them had specific tasks that could not be abandoned. Our survey work could be done any time, so we were elected.

It was frantic work. The site, we learned eventually, dated from about 1750. The Indians were in contact with traders and settlers, both English and French, and the graves were full of trade goods. There were a lot of copper pots. Other than bone beads (well preserved) and furs which were barely recognizable, most of the grave goods were of European origin. That did not mean that these were westernized Indians, only that they had trading relationships.

We found a lovely silver cross, but that did not mean the deceased was a Christian. We found a flintlock pistol — or rather, a lump of rust that had once been a flintlock pistol. We found the remains of a musket, badly preserved; the wood was marginally better preserved than the iron.

One of the skeletons we found had a row of brass buttons down its sternum and scattered in the dirt in the belly area, along with tarnished epaulets above the points of the humeri. There was no fabric, but he had clearly been buried wearing a military great coat. That didn’t mean he was a scout for the French or the English (there wasn’t enough remaining to know which), although he might have been. He might also have traded for it, or have taken it off a dead European after combat.

Despite the hype about pyramids and Schliemann finding Troy, there is much that can be implied by an archaeology site, but much less that can be proved.

When I say skeletons, you should not picture the dead happy pirates of Pirates of the Caribbean. Bones do not last well in moist ground, and not all bones are created equal. Skulls and femurs last better than pelvi and ribs. The bones of the hands and feet don’t preserve even that well. Tiny bones hardly last at all. There were miniature coffins for infants, but they were pretty much empty, with maybe a few grave goods and a few flakes of skull.

I have to touch on the morality of all this. These were Indians buried by their own people. How would you like to have someone digging up the graveyard where your grandmother is buried? There are valid complaints to be made which I understand and have no intention in arguing against.

This particular case, however, was salvage. To me, it was no different than salvage of European bones. If during the construction of a modern building, a two hundred year old white folks cemetery was discovered in the basement excavation, the bones would be removed and reinterred. You may not realize it, but those bones would certainly pass through the hands of physical anthropologists who would study them for what they had to tell about the history of disease in early America, before being returned to the earth.

We were careful with everything we found because every piece had a story to tell. I spent hours drawing the remains in situ before they were removed, and hours with an alidade (described in post 586) making sure that the locations were well mapped.

We were careful with bones and copper pots, but we didn’t treat either as sacred objects. A pot is not a meal, and a bone is not a person. Everything went to the museum and the bones were, I believe, eventually reburied.

There are a few more personal bits to this story. My future wife was also on archaeology crews those two years, but not with me. She lived in Saginaw, and when she came home for the weekend during our salvage operation, she drove up to the site and volunteered to help.

When someone asks me where I met my wife, I say we met in a graveyard. Then I explain further. The following winter, she and I worked together upstairs in the MSU museum cataloging the results of the dig. Two years later, we were married.

The site was so rich that the land owner had it diked off. The dredging went on, but the fill went elsewhere, and the site was not lost. I spent the following summer there, this time accompanied by my college roommate. The site later became a field school, and my roommate wrote up the results as his Ph.D. dissertation. It is on line. The site ended up on the National Register of Historic Places, and has its own brief spot on Wikipedia.

Archaeology wasn’t an occupation I could continue, but I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world.