Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy, Hippocampus Shrinkage, and PTSD (Revised)

So my local fish wrapper, the Denver Post, carried this article. The print version had some pretty convincing MRIs showing the vascularization of a previously damaged area of a given veteran's brain. I'll buy that. Extra oxygen lets tissues metabolize faster, and this encourages the increase of vascularity. What struck me at the time was the almost throwaway mention that oh yeah, these veterans also had reduction/elimination of their PTSD symptoms in some cases.

This caught my eye, since somewhat less recently, I read studies like this: and others, which suggest that PTSD has a strong component of hippocampal shrinkage, and that antidepressant therapy with SSRIs can reverse the shrinkage and ultimately cure the PTSD. Wait, whoa, stop. Antidepressants can change your brain structure? Permanently? Yes, they can. According to the wikipedia article, (I know, I know.) SSRIs can cause the formation of new neural pathways and act as an anti-inflammatory in the brain.

My question is, are anti-depressants and HBOC doing the same thing to the PTSD sufferer? Are they revascularizing and/or reducing inflammation in the hippocampus? And if these things are possible, what else can you treat with HBOC and/or antidepressants?

Unlike what we were taught when I was in high school, our brains make new neurons every day. The difference is if we don't use them, they die. Why? I haven't read any theories about why, but I'll speculate. If you can destroy cancer by normalizing the vascularity of a cancerous tumor (, and if vascularity of muscle increases as the muscle becomes hypertropic,, and if we can effect the vascularity of a human brain by increasing activity levels in existing brain tissue and reap the benefits of better cerebral circulation, then it stands to reason that some neurons are retained and others lost based on usage might be a result of available circulation. If you have neurogenesis in an area of your brain you use continuously, the circulation might be better, and the new neuron might stay. If it occurs where you're not using it, it might not. If that, in turn, is true, then the very act of increasing activity of existing neurons and thus causing them to demand more circulation might be not only improving circulation to existing neurons, but encouraging new neurons to replace the ones that were lost in the original brain damage.

As a mechanism, this is fascinating. How many mental diseases resemble, on their faces, parts of the brain not getting enough circulation? Can you treat, for example, depression with HBOC? Could you cure it?

Medicine is complex. As with all science, there's probably more to it than this. But circulation seems like at least the most basic, brute force tool to make permanent changes to someone's brain short of sticking an ice pick through their eye socket. And what is really fascinating is that the 'mind' changes with these structural changes. Allowing the hippocampus to regenerate relieves some forms of PTSD. Revascularizing damaged brain tissues releaves chronic pain, coordination, and yes, PTSD again in some veterans who've had head trauma. While brain chemistry is excruciatingly complex, circulation comes down to plumbing, and that's something we humans have a pretty good handle on.

Exciting stuff.

-JRS (Revised for clarity. Yesterday's version kind of fell apart at the end.)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Felix Baumgartner Breaks Sound Barrier

Unless you've been hiding under a rock today, you already knew that Felix Baumgartner made his parachute jump from more than 26 miles up, and made a maximum speed of 833.9mph - faster than the speed of sound - in freefall on the way down. Among the records he broke were Col. Joe Kittinger's altitude, freefall time, and freefall speed records. This stuff interests me - there's a scene like that in Irreconcilable Differences, of course, but really, right now, congratulations belong to Baumgartner and his team - including Kittinger himself - for a successful jump, a safe landing, generally not punching a very large, messy hole in the desert floor. -JRS

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Taos Toolbox 2013

Taos Toolbox 2013 is looking for applicants. What's Taos Toolbox, you ask? Well, you asked the right guy. Taos Toolbox is a master level writing workshop, taught by Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress at the Taos Ski area in New Mexico. The website for it is here:

I was at Taos Toolbox 2011. I came in with some chops. So did everyone else who was there. Even if it hadn't been for an advanced graduate course worth of instruction crammed into two weeks, even without instruction by writers who are some of the best in the business - Walter Jon Williams, Nancy Kress, and guest lecturer Jack Skillingstead - having two weeks away from my real life, workshopping my peers' work was incredible. I learned a lot just from those people - things like building magic systems that don't make me itch.

And then you get the instruction. How novels work, down on the nitty gritty level, and how to plan and execute them. What details you include for the sense of reality, and what ones you don't. How your plot advances, what it reveals about the story and when. There's much more, of course, but this was the stuff I went to Taos for.

Last year, when crowing about Taos, I used hypothetical examples. This time I'm going to lay out a personal example of what I got from the instruction at Taos.

All my training, lo these many years ago, was in short stories. When I wrote Looking Glass, it came out as a 50,000 word short story. It didn't even have chapters. Short stories are different animals, because you can keep the whole plot in your head and make it up as you go. I still like Looking Glass, but the plot is simple and linear. Cath and her team are attacked, she survives, they don't, and the rest is a quest for revenge and justice that goes like a traceroute from one node to the next until she finds the perp. The roadmap I had for writing it was simply that. The traceroute. I knew that kind of storyline would work for the story I was telling, because it's how Cliff Stoll put together one of my favorite nonfiction books, The Cuckoo's Egg. Cath's mom issues were one of those kismet things that fell into place during revision and made the book far better than its original, linear plot allowed. (Let's say I needed to do some nonstandard things with the fourth wall and needed to have set the precedent for doing so all the way through.) It came out remarkably well.

As I progressed to later work, it become painfully obvious that the more complex the plot I tried to invent, the more my existing planning was just not up to the job, and that a novel is just too big to try and keep the whole plot in my head. Finding the plot, asking, begging kismet to once again drop the plot element in my lap that would make the novel really sing doesn't work reliably. Brass and Steel is in the polishing phases now. There are 56 chapters in the current beta, as I go into the polishing phase of this novel. I wrote 69 other chapters that won't be in it. That's no way to write a novel. At Taos, some time in the first week, I was finally able to ask the right questions to tell myself what the novel is about. What the main character, Dante Blackmore wants. It's a redemption story. Dante starts the novel lost, and over the course of the novel finds some measure of redemption (and what that means.) Since Taos, the process for finishing the novel has amounted to chipping away anything that doesn't support that, and fleshing out all the missing pieces for how that is accomplished.

The future: At Taos, one of my fellow students and a very fine writer volunteered the novel she was stuck on up for storyboarding. I've never been one to pre-plan a novel that way before. It always seemed to me that it takes the joy out of writing if you know what's going to happen next. What happened amazed me. Really. Laying the whole book out on stickinotes on the wall gave us the whole flow of the plot, all its emotional beats, and also where it lost its way forward, and with the author of the novel, Walter Jon Williams, and the gang of us, we hashed out the problems and laid out a plot line that worked in four or five freaking hours. It took me over a year to really understand what Brass and Steel: Inferno wanted to be about. Storyboarding this other writer's novel let us see the emotional beats of the novel clearly, and tune them directly. In hours. I want that. Next novel: Getting storyboarded. I have stickinotes. I just need to find wall space.

Writing is hard. When the finished, published book looks effortless on rereading, it means you've done your job. Taos is hard. It's no mean feat to read, critique, and workshop and in part, write 197,000 words in two weeks, when you're also spending four hours a day in instruction. But if you're an up-and-comer, if you write and you've sold but you want to grow your talent, if you're stuck and you don't know why, do Taos. It's hard. It's not cheap. But it's worth it.


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Simplepi Blogger Comment/Reply Processing

Just in case there're any simplepi users out there desperately searching (as I was) for how to deal with comments from Blogger/Blogspot, here's the code that works for me. I've broken the code into what should be legitimate PHP lines so wrapping doesn't look so dang bad on my website, but some sanity checking after cut-and-paste is probably in order. The actual PHP code is available in the downloads section of my website in functions.php. (Scroll all the way down.)

//I'm not sure why I had to put the namespace link in this tag when all the other get_item_tags calls don't need it. I know it does not work without that namespace link, however. Took quite a while to find where Blogger actually got that xml from.

$temp= $item->get_item_tags(
//Blogger puts all kinds of useless crap in their post_id field, so while get_id is a standard method, we have to do a bunch of explode processing to sieve it out. There are probably better ways in PHP, but I learned LISP at a young and impressionable age, and this is the LISP way. Don't throw away the temp array, as we need other elements from it shortly.
$postid=$temp[2]; //this one is the post id.
$temp=explode('.',$temp[1]); //this one is the blog ID. 
$blogid=$temp[0]; //Now set the blogid to the value we need.
//with those values gathered, we can generate the url to link back to the specific article reply page. We could probably also generate the reply feed url and feed that to simplepie, but why make work for ourselves making our own reply page?
//Now we have all the pieces we need to dynamically generate the html for a Comments: /somenumber/ link that points to the Blogger replies page. It's straightforward PHP from here.

I don't normally post code snippets in my blog - it's not that kind of blog - but I stood on the shoulders of giants to get simplepie working in as little time as it took, and this was the one bit I had to figure out for myself. -JRS

Monday, October 8, 2012

Web Site Changes

As promised, I've finished the website changes. Other than the sudden appearance of book reviews in the area that used to be just my blog feed, there shouldn't be any major differences. You can subscribe to both the blog and book reviews (goodreads) RSS feeds on the front page.

Under the hood it's a different story. I've finally gotten switched over to simplepie in place of the antediluvian magpie, and simplepie's ability to handle and blend multiple feeds is why my reviews are now showing up in the blog window.

re: Twitter: I was going to hook Twitter in the same way, and in fact the code is in place to do exactly that, but it's turned off, as I have yet to say anything of much substance on twitter. Plus, I know some folks who like blogs can't stand twitter (I lean this way myself, but I'm getting over it), so for now they'll stay unblended. Look for me on twitter as Ubergeek72

There is, as they say, one more thing. All the pages in this site now pass w3c validation. I went through and fixed all those & signs in cut-and-pasted URLs, fixed where my dynamic HTML wasn't closing tags, and a hundred other little things.

As always, if you find bugs, please let me know.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

In which I prove I'm not dead.

So yeah, it's more than three months since I last posted to this blog. I've been head-down, banging out Brass and Steel: Inferno. Since I finished it in May, I've hacked about 10,000 words out of it and put a couple thousand new words in. Hopefully that's the end of the heavy revisions (replotting, etc). I'm also beta-testing my Firearms: A Quick and Dirty Guide for the Non-Shooting Writer document, version 2. And finally, I'm doing major surgery on my website to switch over to simplepie to aggregate this blog, my goodreads RSS feed, and twitter, so watch for those changes on the website coming soon. Also starting to cook ideas for Brass and Steel II in my head. Hoping to start storyboarding it out (new technique I learned at Taos) this week. I was at ChiCon 7, but participated very little (my wife and I were both not feeling very well, and the ChiCon folks didn't invite me to any panels when I offered.) Met up with a bunch of the Taos Toolbox 2011 gang, including Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress, our instructors, which was a lot of fun. Many pictures, especially of the Hugo ceremony, can be found here: Click These Words. Yes, new DSLR is sensitive enough to use the 500mm catadioptric lens under stage lighting. :) Finally, I will be attending MileHiCon again this year, and I am on panels. More info on that here as I continue to dig out. -JRS

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Vacuum Cleaners

In my dining room, under the table is a Persian style rug. It's large, very close napped, brought back with us from the wilds of Costco (I think) where it was made of genuine polyester. The rug grabs and holds cat hair like nothing else I've ever seen. I keep expecting the cats that inevitably lie on it to be stuck there, meowing pitifully, until some kind human slowly peels them up from the rug like velcro and sends them on their way, leaving a perfect cat-shaped fur patch, like the shadows from the Hiroshima bombing.

This rug is where vacuums go to die.

Cheap Chinese Hoover? Destroyed in 2 years. Uber-expensive Miele? simply refuses to clean it. "Nein." it says. "Ich will nicht mein Leben riskieren, um diese zu reinigen." (The Miele is a bit finicky like that. I really don't recommend them.) This is the rug I had in mind whilst garage-sale shopping. This is the rug for which I bought a Kirby.

Kirby vacuums, for those who've not heard, are one of those weird throw-back products. They are vacuums engineered like tanks, sold by door-to-door salesmen just as they have been for nearly a century. The Generation 4 I bought, made sometime between 1993 and 1997 was probably a $1500 vacuum when it was new. I gave 50 bucks for it. New bags? No problem. Genuine Kirby, from a dealer at Amazon. New power-head drive belts? Again, no problem, factory new, from a different dealer at Amazon. Most vacuum places I've seen online will service Kirbys, and the array of spare parts for them is astonishing. Power head rollers, belts, bags, hoses, cords, motors, power-assist system, you can even replace the wheels, for pete's sake. Ours, to be frank, stunk when it ran. Well hell, I can fix that. New bags, new power drive belt, clean 20 years accumulated dog hair out of the power head, and darned if I needed /any/ tools to do it. Not even a screwdriver. Everything works properly now and the machine doesn't reek of dog-hair-and-rubber-tires-on-fire.

But the question remained, does it suck?

Ladies and gentlemen, it does, indeed suck. That 20 or 30 pound aluminum behemoth, with its variable speed power drive (akin to my lawnmower) goes over that rug and leaves a swath of clean, cat-hair-free polyester in its wake. It digs crud out of our berber carpets that has resisted five years of lesser vacuums. While this whole post smacks of hyperbole (because it's fun), I'm serious. This machine is impressive.

So if you are looking for a good vacuum, especially if your home is all on one floor (the blasted thing is heavy), keep your eyes open for a Kirby. I don't think I'd buy one new at full price unless I was really flush, but a 20 year old model for 1/30th the price plus some TLC? Might be just the trick.


Friday, June 8, 2012

This Blog is now linked to my Google+ account. Yay!

Re: Abbey

Re: Abbey Thanks, all for the kind words about Abbey (the cat.) Abbey came to us as an adult, so we don't really know how old she was. The vet at the time estimated her age at about 3, but we always thought more like 1.5. We had her for about 12 years. In any case, about 4 weeks ago, we noticed that she had lost quite a bit of weight and was seeming a little stiff in the hips, so we took her to the vet, where she was diagnosed with diabetes.

Per the vet's instructions, we transitioned the whole gang to a low carb diet and were getting ready to start Abbey on blood sugar control pills. She seemed to be rallying, feeling a lot better, wanting treats, sitting on my shoulder, all things she hadn't been doing as much lately.

We were gone 4 days visiting my parents, and when we came back Monday night she was notably worse. M was sick Monday night and into Tuesday (food poisoning, we think) and by Wednesday morning, Abbey was barely able to haul herself upstairs. She was badly dehydrated and wouldn't eat. We took her to the vet, and ultimately Abbey had to be put down.

She died about as peacefully as it can be done. She was heavily dosed with pain killers so we could spend a few minutes with her and say our goodbyes. She managed to purr a little from the petting. When the second drug went in, she just lay her head down, closed her eyes part way, and stopped breathing. That was that. We closed her eyes and stayed with her until she started getting cold.

It's easy to say quality of life quality of life. The suggestion was made early on to put Abbey on insulin injections twice a day, but Abbey was not one to tolerate being mugged on a daily basis for any reason. We'd had to medicate the cat before. It seemed to us then (and still does now) that for Abbey, the damage to her quality of life would have negated any benefit to extending her life with insulin. Pilling with blood sugar control drugs, by contrast, would have been doable, because (until the end) Abbey would happily eat pills wrapped in tuna. Bottom line is that this was a cat who was between 13 and 15 years old. That's a full lifespan for a cat. Her teeth were going (dental work was done, rest assured), we were pretty sure her eyesight was going. At some point we had to ask what her quality of life would be even if she /did/ put up with the insulin. Would we have bought her meaningful time, or just time for something else to kill her more slowly? And we tried to keep in mind that cats don't worry about dying the way humans do. They don't have the brain anatomy for anything that abstract. They know they hurt now, and want it to stop.

In the end, Abbey went downhill with the diabetes faster than anyone expected. Wednesday morning, she made it as clear as she could without words (she was a cat, after all) that it was time, that she was through. Pets do this, much as we humans don't want to hear it from them.

Something we've been saying a lot recently. When you sign on to raise a kitten, if all goes well, you're signing on to bury a cat. They don't live as long as we do. It's the decade and a half or so between those two points that make it all worthwhile. The boys - Oreo and Shadow - are still with us, and they're both doing fine. They're a comfort, even if Oreo in particular seems to miss his sister of all these years. They're cats. They don't worry about these things long. They'll be fine. So will we.


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Farewell Abbey


Farewell to Abbey, born somewhere between 1997 and 1999. She was a good kitty. -JRS

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

And one other thing...

I finished the first draft of Brass and Steel: Inferno, plot complete, from beginning to end on May 21. I'm wading through it and commenting on it and generally considering what tack I need to take with the edit. Also starting to research ideas for the second book, tentatively titled Brass and Steel II: The Shattered Glass, laying out some possibly pivotal scenes, and doing a little free writing on it. Catching up with my RL, yeah, that too. :) -JRS

Shirts that Fit

For you gentlemen in Denver, for whom finding a dress shirt in your size is a pain, let me recommend Faconne It's a little place next to Panera on Park Meadows drive in LoneTree, and they make custom shirts. Well. Let me take that back a little. They take measurements for custom shirts, and send the actual tailoring out. To Thailand. The shirts aren't cheap, either. Mine (admittedly with most of the expensive addons, like 100% cotton fabric) ran me about a hundred bucks, and it took about 3 weeks to get here. But let me tell you, I've never /ever/ had a dress shirt that fit so well. I can button the collar (and wear a tie, theoretically) and it's not just tolerable, it's comfortable. Really. I was astonished. I had M, who sews, inspect it. She tells me it's well made, obviously hand made (as opposed to bulk manufactured) with some nice tailoring touches like flat felled French seams on the sides and in the sleeves. Highly recommended. -JRS

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Hackstability: how big systems can survive their own success

Just read a fascinating article by Venkat here on ribbonfarm, positing a third path for systems to evolve between total replacement and reengineering and entropy collapse. Most interesting is his example of city technology, where a major old city teeters forever on the brink of collapse, but because the people who /live/ there keep hacking the systems that are the city, the systems keep working.

I've experienced this on the small scale. While at [fill in major technology company here], we had genuine legacy software, a server that was notoriously both fragile and single threaded, so that if any of the dozens of computers that talked to the server threw it a curve, lost their mind, or whatever, the entire server hung, and the factory stopped moving product.

At the time, my thought was "Well shit, guys, write a new one that isn't single threaded. While you're at it, make the damn thing so it can span cluster nodes and load share automatically too." In terms of the article referenced, however, paying interest on the technical debt - that is, the deficiencies of the server from crappy design, kludges, and so forth by having the team of support people I was on monitor the thing and restart it as necessary were cheaper than the paying the real costs to design and implement a replacement without those deficiencies.

The article goes further though. It talks about how technology like the much hated server discussed above becomes non-disposable, how it accretes so much interdependency with other things that it /can't/ be ripped out and replaced. And that's where the concept of hack stability comes in. The humans who maintain the server can continue to hack it, so long as their (often undocumented, non-organized) knowledge is preserved across generations of support people (high turnover) and keep the system either going indefinitely, or at least guide it into a soft landing instead of an uncontrolled crash.

All interesting in terms of computer systems, but the author is extending the reach of this concept to /everything technology has colonized/. That is, the whole planet.

Read the article. It's good. Expect to see it in my work at some point. :)


Monday, April 9, 2012

Commodore 64 Creator Jack Tramiel Dies

The first computer I ever touched was a Tandy TRS80 model 3, which my mother borrowed from the school district she taught for one summer. The first computer I owned was a Commodore 64. I can't tell you how many hours I sat behind that thing learning to program, writing papers, goofing off. I can tell you that I used it from my junior year in high school, 1984 or so, through high school, through undergraduate school, and that I surrendered it only in 1990 as I began grad school and really needed a PC. Until the computer I'm writing this on, it was my longest lived computer ever. Hard drive? Who needed it? I had a 1581 800k floppy drive (and a burst mode rom chip to drive it.) It was fast, three or four floppies would hold all the software I owned, and it didn't make the hideous sounds the 1541 drive did. Graphics? Got 'em. Sound? Best in the industry until Mac, Amiga, and so forth came out. Truly a wondrous thing. And now the man who built both it and the company is gone at the age of 83. From a once-upon-a-time budding young nerd who still remembers how much fun computers were back then. A toast to you, sir. And farewell. -JRS

Thursday, April 5, 2012

New Music to Write To

New Music to Write To: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture). On iTunes here. -JRS

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Amy Tan, on why she votes as she does.

There's writing with power, and then there's Amy Tan. That I agree with her wholeheartedly probably goes without saying.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Farewell to Davy Jones

I never was much of a Monkees fan (they released their last American hit the year I was born) but they had this strange recurrence in the time when MTV was transitioning to just another TV channel and away from playing music video, so I did see them. Also, M has been a longtime fan. So farewell to Davy Jones, who died today of a heart attack. Others may remember him for his better known work, but I always think of this piece Your Personal Penguin. It's a silly song for a Sandra Boynton book by the same title, but… perhaps it's a fitting way to remember the guy who was, in the end, best known as the lead singer of a band from a 60s tv comedy. -JRS

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Antique Shaving Technology

Antique Shaving Technology -or- Bloodletting for Beginners

Once upon a time, around 30 years ago now, I faced the mirror with a loaded razor in my hand, and timorously began shaving for the first time. Like most young men of my generation, I learned the art watching my father. I recall he made the strangest faces while shaving, and he had, years prior to my first attempt, explained that these are to draw the skin tight and make it easier to shave. My father shaved, at that time, with an old fashioned safety razor. The kind that you twist open and a paper thin piece of metal, sharp on both edges, manufactured by Wilkinson Sword, falls out and you slip in another when it's dull. He used that same razor for years and years until, without my really understanding why, he switched to the then-new cartridge razor. Probably a Gillette Track 2.

I, of course, learned with double-blade cartridges. Probably my own Gillette Track 2, or perhaps a disposable of similar capabilities. I don't recall how much damage I did to my face in that first attempt, but since I don't have any scars that I've noticed, I have to assume it wasn't too awful. I don't suppose I cared for it that much though. In any case, the double-bladed razors of my youth, like the multi-blade cartridges of today, are forgiving of sloppy technique in exchange for a fairly crappy shave, but hey, I was in high school. We were all a little scruffy.

Fortunately for me, these were the Miami Vice years, when a little scruff was suddenly in, and as my beard didn't grow that fast back then anyway, I could go the better part of a week without shaving, before I found myself in violation of the school's dress code. (Catholic school. 'Nough said.) This suited me fine. After all, if Don Johnson looked reasonably cool in that 'yeah, just coming back from a weekend bender of cocaine and bimbos' kind of way, presumably I would too.

Somewhere in here, I got my first electric razor. It was, if memory serves, a Remington Microscreen. It shaved reasonably well, especially if you used their special face talc, which in addition to making your razor slide over your very dry skin more easily, also hid any unsightly stubble, at least until you began to sweat.

In college, my shaving habits fell further to the wayside. This is to say grew a beard. Bearing in mind I was 19 when I started college, it's safe for the reader to assume that this was not an attractive beard, nor a well kempt beard, or a particularly complete beard, but hey, I hadn't cut my hair in 8 months either. So yeah, I came home from my freshman year in college looking like a disheveled mop, more than anything else. I did shave the beard off, though I sported a mustache from time to time. Quite a few of my mustaches got shaved the rest of the way off because, in a hurried bout of shaving, I'd get one side shorter and closer to the centerline of my face than the other, try to trim the other side up, get it too short, and wind up with the Hitler/Chaplin mustache, and the whole thing would go down the drain. The Remington's beard trimmer was reasonably useful in this regard. Better, in fact, than the razor itself.

By the time I hit grad school, I did two things. I grew my hair long, and I decided that throwing away a cartridge every few shaves and/or getting a mediocre shave from a shaver more bent on pulling my (rather thicker those days) beard out by the roots than really cutting it was really not how I wanted to continue. Not being one to do things in half measures - who is, in grad school? - I got myself a straight razor. From a pawn shop. Along with a strop.

Did it shave well? Actually yes. Far better than the Remington ever had, better, in fact, than the cartridge razor it displaced. Once I learned to use it, it wasn't that hard, to be honest. Trying to find anyone in 1991 who knew a damn thing about shaving with a straight razor? That was harder. I learned (the hard way) that there's really only one rule for using a straight razor, and that is: do not for any reason move it along its length. If you do, it will bite you. Hard. Not only did I shave with a straight razor (several straight razors over this time frame) I used a brush and shaving soap and the whole 19th century approach. Once again, since I wasn't shaving every day still (though by that time I really should have been) it wasn't that big a problem.

Fast forward to my career in high tech. Working for Intel required two things. First, you had to be clean shaven or wear a beard bag in the clean room. Beard bags are wretched things, so best to remain clean shaven. Second, my shift started at 5:30am. The process of waving a three inch piece of razor sharp steel on my face and around the major blood vessels of my neck on four hours of sleep at 4:30 in the morning eventually drove me to reconsider my shaving choices. Fortunately, as one of the more interesting pieces I'd inherited from my grandfather's estate, I got a Shick Injector Blade. (Push pull, click click. I'd only ever seen these in Bugs Bunny cartoons prior to this.) So it was with this that I shaved for quite some years in the early to mid 1990s. Later, I had another flirtation with foil type electric shavers - a Braun this time - and ultimately went back to the Track 2 I first started with.

And then, ah, the wonder of it. The blade companies began adding blades. First three, then four, and now five, count them five blades per cartridge. Not content with all that steel, they also put lubricant strips on the cartridges, good for about 3 shaves, that dispensed slimy goo on your face to make the cartridge go more smoothly. I stopped with a three bladed cartridge, used them until the blades were dull instead of replacing when the goo strip was dried out, and that brings me up to late last year.

Late last year, I discovered a store in the mall called the Art of Shaving. I'd been looking for a place like this for 30 years. A place where you can get the nicer shaving creams (the kinds that come in a tub and are applied with a shaving brush), along with the after-shave oil, pre-shave oil (never found a use for this) and of course, razors. Since they had a razor that took my beloved mach three turbo cartridges, I got one.

And then the damn thing fell apart.

I like the Art of Shaving's product line. But I'd never buy another razor from them. Their razors are overpriced garbage.

Disgusted, I began, last week, looking for a new cartridge razor. And I started doing the math of just how much these damn cartridges cost, even at Costco. My mach 3s are about two dollars a whack. The Gillette Fusion pro five vibrating shave head monstrosity was what I was coveting, but cartridges for it were almost four dollars a whack. And like their predecessors, they're really designed for two or three shaves before the goo strip runs out, and I expect the blades are pretty soft so they don't stay sharp too long either.

I balked. There had to be a better way.

I didn't really want to go back to straight razor. Keeping the thing sharp was always a chore, and I've reached the age where some stubble does not, in fact, make you look like Don Johnson in the 80s, but more like Jan Michael Vincent in the 2000s - like you're a raving alcoholic and sleeping under a bridge. (A little grey in the beard does that to you.) so I'm trying to shave more often.

A little more digging and I discovered that those old fashioned safety razors are still around. Yes, in fact, you can still buy the Wilkinson Sword blades my father shaved with when he was my age (though by all accounts they're not what they were.) And most important to my newly parsimonious approach, even a best-in-class blade made in Japan and ordered from Amazon is about 50 cents, and it's good for the usual 3 to 5 shaves. So I ordered a razor and two double-edged blades, and a blade safe to put the used ones in for about 30 bucks total.

It got here tonight. I tried it.

The good news: It shaves very, very close. I haven't had this close a shave since I stopped using a straight razor. The shaving process is almost as smooth as a cartridge razor, and leaves /me/ much smoother.

The bad news: The skin around my throat is not as tight as it was when I was using the straight razor or the injector blade, and a safety razor is unforgiving about lack of skin tension when shaving. Fortunately, I still had my styptic block from my straight-razor days, so getting all the little nicks to stop bleeding was less a chore than it might have been. That thin squeal you might have heard? That'd have been me. Styptic /stings/. Especially when applied to a square inch of skin best described as abraded. Ye gods.

The takeaway: Remember those funny faces I mentioned my father using when he shaved? Now I understand. Now I see. And so, at the end of this long and rambling missive about razors (without asides for shaving cream, styptic blocks (man, that stings) and the fact that you need abrasive on your strop to keep a straight razor sharp (which I only learned while waiting for my safety razor to arrive. D'oh), we come full circle. Tip of the razor to you Pop. Next time I shave, I'll be making those faces too.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Um… Drop-Pack, anyone?

Those of you who've read Irreconcilable Differences may recall a skydive from suborbital space, based on THIS article, and the jump of Col. Joe Kittinger in the Excelsior III jump, August 16, 1960. One may recall that I specified a "Drop Pack" with winglets that helped Micki and Rae stabilize their flight. In my head, it looked rather like THIS. So it amuses me a great deal to see THIS picture, where Baumgardner, who is attempting to beat Kittinger's record, is wearing something not too different from the drop pack I imagined. It's admittedly a long way from covert suborbital insertion, but hey. It's a drop pack. :) Nothing much else going on. Work is proceeding apace on Brass and Steel: Inferno. I think I've finally untangled the mess of that world and understood why some things are the way they are, because the chapters are fighting me less on the way out. -JRS

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Back from SOPA/PIPA protest mode

Those of you who went to the website yesterday may have noticed it was down in protest of SOPA/PIPA. It's back now. The news about those two idiotic bills seems promising. -JRS

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On Technology

It's tempting to believe that, while technology has changed drastically, if the Victorians (for example) had had material x and technological skill y, they could have built aircraft, spacecraft, and so forth and so on. The more I dig into it, and the more I watch the present world change, the more I think that however fun this is to play with in steampunk, it's not really quite true.

Consider this: Between 1988, when I was engaged in learning computer science, and today when I am completely out of the field, one particular problem went from taking 82 years to solve to less than a minute, an improvement by a factor of 43 million. Now processors got 1000 times faster in that time, but the algorithm got 43,000 times faster as well. See this link.. Likewise, while the initial insights of chaos mathematics date to the late 19th century, as a science it was not given serious study until the middle of the 20th century. (I don't pretend to understand chaos mathematics, but they seem to be proving useful in a great many areas, such as climate change.)

We don't tend to think of mathematics and algorithms as technology, but they very much are, as much as the technology we can put our hands on. And they march on the same way.

So stealth fighters, for example, depend on high tech materials, but those materials were designed based on computer modeling, in turn based on Pyotr Ufimtsev's 1962 book "Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction" In fact, the reason the F117 stealth fighter is made up of flat planes is that the software used for the modeling couldn't model complex curves. The stealth Bomber (B2), and the F22 Raptor were built with more modern software that could. It's interesting to speculate what might have happened if you'd sent an F117 back in time to, say, the Nazis. While having the artifact in hand and knowing it works would have given them a huge jump on knowing what the goal was, one must ask, did they have the math to understand it, and would they need it to recreate it?

This matters in Steampunk fiction because Steampunk is all about asserting things existing before their time. As an example, I'm handwaving fusion for power, because fusion can power steam, and thus fits very comfortably into the Victorian technosphere. I further assert (though rest assured, only in my notes thus far) that the fusion system they use, they don't really understand how it works or what neutron radiation really is, or any of those things. They developed it Edison-light-bulb style - throw ideas at it and see which ones stick. It worked for Edison in the lightbulb, and I assert that it worked for him - and others - with fusion once they knew it could be done. It helped them that they also captured the factories to make these fusion plants. (It also makes me giggle to power the whole story with what amounts to Pons-Fleischmann cold fusion.)

At its heart, Steampunk is a fantasy genre. It's things that never actually happened, mixed with some things that could have happened but did not (Babbage engines) combined with anachronisms and some flat out magic.

At least, that's my take this week. :)


Friday, January 6, 2012


A million 1895 dollars worth of silver weighs about 9 (US) tons, and would amount to about 260 1000(troy) ounce bars. As a solid volume it would take up about 27.5 cubic feet, a cubic block a little more than 3 feet on each side *edit* Someone missed a free book. The numbers I had in here originally sounded fishy so I re-ran them (also with better figures for the price of silver in 1895 and the relative value of the dollar). No book was given, though, so the offer stands. If anyone finds problems with /these/ numbers, the first one to send me corrected ones gets a free copy of Drumlin Circus/On Gossamer Wings or whichever other of my books you don't already have, signed by me (and Jeff if it's DC/OGW.) -JRS

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